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Birds Talking to Fish

Rod Thompson

Invisible fish: Kahawai

Kahawai are like the ghosts of our seas. One moment they are there in their thousands, circling at high speed. Then they collectively appear to disappear. Their counter-shading is so effective that they can appear invisible long before they have actually swum out of sight.
Extinct birds:Te Pouakai, the Haast eagle
Te Pouakai was the largest, most powerful eagle ever, the only eagle in history to have been top predator of its ecosystem. Its talons -- comparable to those of a tiger -- could stab several centimetres into flesh, puncturing bones as well. Te Pouakai probably hunted like other forest eagles by perching high on a branch until prey came within range, then diving on it at speeds of up to 80 kilometres an hour. The impact could knock even the largest moa off its feet. The brutal talons were then used to crush and pierce the neck and skull of the immobilised prey.
Birds that swim in the sea: Hoiho
Hoiho is the yellow-eyed penguin. Its piercing call can be heard over the roar of the waves, hence its name which means 'noisy shouter'. Hoiho belongs to an ancient family of flightless birds that have short, stubby flippers, dense waterproof feathers, and a sleek, streamlined shape, making them well adapted for swimming in the cold sub-Antarctic and Antarctic seas. Hoiho may swim 40 kilometres from the shore, dive up to 120 metres in depth, and swim at speeds of more than 25 kilometres an hour. A truly wondrous bird!

At the close of the twentieth century Os Guinness said, concerning the USA, "I have long argued, among other things, that the present hour in the United States is 'the American hour', a kairos-like moment of opportunity and challenge at the climax of the American century. Also that the root of the crisis is not in America's political order or economic order but in her cultural order -- the world of churches, synagogues, families, schools, colleges, the press and media, arts and entertainment."1

What of New Zealand? Australia? The South Pacific region? Is the hour upon us? Are we also living in a kairos-like moment of opportunity -- or is it already too late?

Apparently, the Japanese character for 'crisis' is a combination of the characters for 'danger' and 'opportunity'.2 If the hour has not already passed -- and surely it hasn't -- then Christians must respond to the moment. Discern the kairos. Sense the danger. And grasp the opportunity.

The witness of Christian churches, however, has already been severely weakened within western cultures. At times the churches have accommodated current cultural norms so readily that they have become, like the Kahawai, ghosts within 21st century societies. They have, as it were, collectively disappeared -- not by ceasing to exist, but by ceasing to be visibly distinctive, by failing to offer compelling alternatives, by focusing their energies on in-house disputes while mumbling simplistic slogans in public places. Like the Kahawai, we have worked out ways to become invisible long before actually disappearing altogether.

Furthermore, Christians on finding themselves to be marginalised, have all too readily welcomed cultural isolation, reducing the message of the gospel to issues of personal salvation and private morality. We have too willingly modelled church life around club membership, rather than establishing vibrant, sacrificial and committed communities.

Then we have wondered why the Christian message is increasingly held to be irrelevant. We have wondered why our message is experienced as powerless. Comfortable isolation can lead to permanent exclusion.

Powerful birds, such as Te Pouakai, become extinct and vanish. Multitudes of fish can become invisible. Is there another way?

The promise of worldview

Current interest in the concept of worldview holds enormous promise for Christians and churches seeking to bear witness to the power of the gospel within 21st century cultures. The Christian appropriation of this concept can be traced back to the 1890s and early 20th century when both James Orr, Professor of Church History at Glasgow University, and Abraham Kuyper, Prime Minister of Holland from 1901-1905, made use of the term, having borrowed it from non-Christian philosophers such as Immanuel Kant.

They hoped that the concept of worldview would alert Christians to the significance of Christian faith for the whole of life, and arm them for the battle already raging between Christian faith and comprehensive, life-shaping ideologies of that era such as modernism.3 As Kuyper memorably proclaimed:

No single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: "Mine!"4

The lordship of Christ, Kuyper insisted, necessitated that Christians engage with the whole of life -- that they develop a worldview.

Likewise, in 1891, Orr had delivered a series of lectures entitled "The Christian View of God and the World." In the course of these lectures, subsequently published in book form, Orr said:

He who with his whole heart believes in Jesus as the Son of God is thereby committed to much else besides. He is committed to a view of God, to a view of man, to a view of sin, to a view of Redemption, to a view of the purpose of God in creation and history, to a view of human destiny, found only in Christianity. This forms a Weltanschauung, or "Christian view of the world" which stands in marked contrast with theories wrought out from a purely philosophical or scientific standpoint.5 (emphasis mine)

For Orr, the testimony of the Scriptures necessitated that Christians have a particular view of things -- a Christian worldview.

More recently, Christian worldview literature has proliferated. Consequently, worldview awareness among Christians has increased markedly.6 Authors such as James Sire, Arthur Holmes, Brian Walsh, Richard Middleton, Al Wolters, James Olthuis, David Noebel, John MacArthur, David Dockery, Gregory Thornbury, Charles Colson, Nancy Pearcey and David Naugle continue to publish worldview texts. Moreover, worldview conferences, courses, videos, curricula, T-shirts, and even water bottles abound!7

However, there are problems. They are acknowledged within the literature -- though not nearly widely enough given that 'worldview stuff' is now the source of a lucrative income for Christian publishers, marketers and ministry groups.

The problem with worldview

The term 'worldview' itself is a problem. It always has been, and still is, too 'viewish'. It suggests that the essence of Christian faith is developing a viewpoint. Holding a perspective. Such a notion is narrow, detached and passive. It may even pander to complacent, dispassionate, intellectual Christian arrogance.

Moreover, it is untrue to the Scriptures that speak of a God who comes down, incarnates himself in humanness, embraces creation, engages in relationship, and suffers with and for his people. The God of the Christian gospel does far more than hold a viewpoint!

One Christian principal, a participant in research into Christian education in Australia between 2001-20038 said, concerning his school:

This (school) is the extra story of the gospel and(of) God's grace working out in this little community here . . . . We're seeking to make it a place where we tell the story of the grace -- and it's more than just telling -- it's a living of the story as well. That story has to do with authenticity, and so our biblical viewpoint would drive us beyond just having a biblical viewpoint, or a perspective. It's got to move into action -- it's got to! It's not good enough for the kids to have perspectives . . . .

The Scriptures drive Christians "beyond just having a viewpoint". So must the concept of Christian worldview. If it is too theoretical, too academic, too packaged, and too much about having right answers to big questions, then we risk turning out Christian 'know-it-alls' who can rattle off simplistic formulas, regurgitate right responses, list the main characteristics of Biblical Theism, Secular Humanism, Marxist-Leninism, Cosmic Humanism, and every other 'ism' ever constructed -- but who are not disciples of Christ in any truly biblical sense.

Getting a worldview

Secondly, much of the worldview literature conveys the message that, by reading this book or going to that conference, one can get a 'biblical Christian worldview'. The assumption is that a 'biblical Christian worldview' is something experts can impart. It can be transferred. It is something for which one can gain a certificate: "Now I've got a biblical Christian worldview!" This makes a mockery of the concept and of the Scriptures.

James Sire's most recent description of worldview, decided on after some 50 years of wrestling with worldview issues, reads as follows:

A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.9

Even more telling is the description developed by Tom Wright. Worldviews, he contends:

. . . are like the foundations of a house: vital but invisible. They are that through which, not at which a society or individual normally looks; they form the grid according to which humans organise reality, not bits of reality that offer themselves for organisation.10

If the worldview concept is to be of any use at all, we must recognise that it encompasses all that we take for granted -- our most basic presuppositions, our unacknowledged assumptions, and our very way of being in the world. It speaks of the state of our hearts and the most fundamental orientation of our lives. As such it can only be shaped and reshaped, formed and reformed in the cut and thrust of life -- in relationships, during times of tragedy, and through engagement with our cultures. Worldview books and conferences will help, but they cannot be marketed as ends in themselves. Walsh and Middleton assert:11

When we look at a culture, we are looking at the pieces of a puzzle. We can see the functioning of assorted institutions, like the family, government, schools, cultic institutions (churches, temples, synagogues and so on) and businesses. We can observe different modes of recreation, different sports, transportation and eating habits. Each culture develops a unique artistic and musical life. All of these cultural activities are pieces of a puzzle.

The question is, how do we put the puzzle together? How do the pieces interrelate? What is the pattern of the culture? Is there a key that unlocks the pattern? Yes. The central element which brings the pieces of the puzzle together into a coherent whole is the worldview that has the leading role in the life of the culture. (Emphasis mine.)

Worldviews shape cultures. Cultures clothe worldviews. The details of everyday life are windows on deeply held worldview beliefs about reality. Unless worldview writers and speakers equip us for cultural engagement with the intent of cultural renewal, they will have failed in their responsibility to God and his people.

Worldview shaped by the word of God

It is most important that Christians understand that worldview shaping is accomplished by the uniquely powerful, ongoing work of the word of God. The author of Hebrews wrote of that dynamic.12

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from his sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.

The author here speaks primarily of Old Testament texts -- the words spoken by God, subsequently recorded as Scripture. The Old Testament is not a dead and distant letter, rather it is living and incisive, more potent than ever through its relationship with Christ and the gospel.

In his commentary on the book of Hebrews T Hewitt compares this penetrating work of the Scriptures with "the surgeon who carries a bright and powerful light for every dark crevice, and a sharp knife for the removal of the pus revealed by the light."13

A major deficiency with much current worldview literature is its assumption that Christians are immersed in the Scriptures. It presupposes the ongoing work of the two-edged sword in the hearts of God's people. Given the state of current Christian culture, such is frequently not the case.

Indeed, research undertaken among Christian educators in Australia over the past three years indicates a disturbing lack of engagement with the Bible. And the teachers themselves all too readily admitted this as they reflected on the influence of the Bible on their own lives, worldviews, educational vision and educational practice.

In general terms, research participants acknowledged that they preferred to read books about the Bible, rather than the Bible itself. One said: "I read heaps of Phillip Yancey, Max Lucado . . . but I don't read the Bible . . . I know I'm not reading the Bible enough. I'm reading heaps of books about the Bible."

The sections of the Bible that research participants said were influential were consistently drawn from a highly selective, truncated canon of Scripture. Within the Old Testament for example, only the early chapters of Genesis, a small selection of Psalms and a group of favoured Proverbs were of notable influence. Other texts such as Micah 6:8 were well known, despite being in the book of Micah which participants considered to be highly uninfluential. In other words, such texts were being widely used in a consistently decontextualised manner.

One principal lamented: "Modern Christianity tends to treat the Bible as a proof-text source. You find the verse that proves what you wanted to say." Another leader said:

What I think we're doing is looking for proof-texts to support what we're teaching, rather than looking for overall principles and concepts that come through the Scripture . . . . That's the way preaching has been over the last few years, where we just pick out verses, and that's very popular. So we've taken them totally out of context but . . . it's a verse! And so I suppose maybe that's what we've done in Christian schooling over the last 20 or 30 years -- just reflecting what preachers are doing.

In his book Reformational Christian Philosophy and Christian College Education, C Seerveld says: "The Bible is not a source book of proof texts, but a network of connected passages colouring the Lord in a rainbow of awful glories."

Sadly, the networks of passages are increasingly unrecognised, and such appreciation of the Scriptures not widely shared. And it is not generally because Christians don't want to immerse themselves in God's word. The tragedy is that they don't know how to. As one long standing Christian leader remarked during the course of research: "Most of us haven't moved too far away from a Sunday school understanding of the Bible. We haven't been taught to read the Bible . . . where do you get that teaching?"

Unless worldview literature actually helps God's people to immerse themselves -- and continue immersing themselves -- in the Scriptures, rather than simply telling them what a Christian worldview is, again, it will have failed to realise the potential that Orr and Kuyper imagined for the concept.

This is the hour

Perhaps churches and Christians, throughout 21st century cultures, can learn from the Kahawai, Te Pouakai, and Hoiho. May we not render ourselves invisible, like fading ghosts (as the Kahawai do), comfortably accommodated to current cultural norms, unshaped by the word of God. And may we not be content with marginalised isolation, a once powerful witness to God's grandeur, excluded, unheard, a mere cultural memory -- like the great eagle, Te Pouakai.

Instead let us be represented by the remarkable Hoiho -- the noisy shouter! Hoiho: uniquely insistent above the deafening rumble of ocean waves. Not a bird that soars above the world -- an image of those who hold to the idea of a distanced and detached worldview -- rather a bird that swims in the sea! An ancient, distinctive bird, that immerses and engages -- a bird that talks with fish.

Yet, if this is to be an hour of worldview re-formation and of cultural engagement, renewal and even transformation, then major aspects of Christian practice must change.

As Christians, we must again learn how to soak ourselves in the Scriptures. We must again come to know the weightiness of the Lord whom we meet there, coloured in "a rainbow of awful glories". We must again commit ourselves to establishing and maintaining Christian communities that are being shaped by the full testimony of the Scriptures. And together we must embark on the lifetime struggle to faithfully represent the Lord in the public arena of cultural life.

To accomplish any of this will require us to do a lot more than simply develop views -- even worldviews!