Salt And LightJim Denison discusses how Christians need to rise to the challenge of thinking biblically and redemptively about cultural issues.
Jim Denison is Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a non-profit Christian media organization. He describes himself as a cultural apologist. In this conversation with Editorial Director Jeff McDonald, Denison discusses how Christians need to rise to the challenge of thinking biblically and redemptively about cultural issues.
WC: How do you define your role as a cultural anthropologist. What is your mission?
Jim Denison: We believe there is a need for a great movement of Christians who will use their influence to shape the culture relative to the Kingdom of God, to advance God’s word at the context of the issues of the day. What We seek to do is to equip Christians to do that by helping them think biblically and respond redemptively to breaking news and to cultural issues. I write a daily article as you mentioned that goes to about 300,000 subscribers and about 2 million in its total social reach. All in the service of equipping Christians to use their influence more effectively for Jesus.
How did you arrive at this stage of ministry?
I grew up in Houston, Texas in a wonderful home but with no spiritual life. My father had fought in World War II and never went to church again. He saw such horrible atrocities. He could not make his faith work with the experiences that he had in the South Pacific. At the age of 15, I was invited by some friends to ride their bus to church. That is how I first heard the Gospel and eventually came to faith in Christ. But I still had all my dad’s questions. “If there is a God, why are there wars, evil and suffering?” When I was in college, someone gave me a copy of CS Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” and it changed my life. It was the first time I had seen anyone deal with faith intellectually. I ended up making that my life’s pursuit. I earned a PhD in Philosophy of Religion and taught Philosophy at Southwestern Seminary for several years. Then, I pastored for churches w and have taught at seminaries along the way as well. Then, in 2009, we launched Denison Forum so that I could devote full-time attention to helping people think biblically and redemptively about cultural issues.
How do you explain the relevance of the Bible to generations immersed in information, opinions, broad worldviews, faith in science and humanity’s power to bring about change and shape human destiny?
Human nature does not change. Divine nature does not change. Our job as communicators of scriptural truth is to demonstrate the relevance of scripture to the issues it already addresses, to remove the barriers to help people see the relevance of scripture more fully. God’s truth is still true and still relevant to those issues.
Is it possible to develop a morality and virtuous living without a belief in God?
John says in his gospel that Jesus was active at the beginning of creation “and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it” (1:4-5). There is this light of truth, what Peter Berger called signals of transcendence, in every human. Whether morality comes out of a Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim or Jewish worldview, a Stoic worldview, there are seeds of truth in all of that. That may not be acknowledged as coming from divine revelation or the Judeo-Christian worldview, but they have commonalities that I believe are revealed from the God who loves us all, who knows us all, and who is speaking to all of us.
The dignity of all humans is rooted in the biblical world view. It is stated in Genesis 1 where we were all created in the image of God. As explained in Galatians 3 there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, we are all Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the Covenant. Of course, we as believers owe it to the world to let it be known that anyone can have a personal relationship with God in Christ. We do that not only with what we say but with how we say it and how we live it. That is one of the reasons I am such a fan of the Army. What you do every single day is demonstrate the relevance of Christian compassion, and that builds bridges for the Gospel.
Many people consider the viewpoint that Christianity in general and Jesus in particular are uniquely ultimate in terms of salvation and destiny as a pejorative. Why?
Because of the way the logic of the Gospel gets communicated. All world religions believe that they have a unique truth to offer. Buddhists are convinced that the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path is the way to Nirvana or enlightenment as they would understand it. Hinduism is convinced that it is a setting disciplines to the way to Moksha or Salvation. Orthodox Jews are convinced the 613 laws of the Torah are God’s written Revelation intended for all of us. Muslims believe that the Five Pillars of Islam are the way to relate appropriately to Allah. So when Jesus says “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the father but by me” (if I could shorten an entire world religions class into thirty seconds), the difference is that in Jesus, this one way is available to everyone who will choose it. It is like there is only one key, but it opens every lock. Anybody who will today ask Jesus to forgive their sins and be their Lord becomes the child of God in that moment.
Religions are about climbing up to God. Christianity is God climbing down to us. The way in which we share that has to be in a spirit of humility and grace that says, “We are beggars helping beggars find bread.” I have just been given a grace gift that now I have the privilege of sharing with others. If I do not do it in that spirit, it certainly comes across as elitism and pejorative and discriminatory and all the rest, which is the opposite of the spirit of Christ.
Religions are about climbing up to God. Christianity is God climbing down to us.
How do you respond to the view that the Christian way of life is just one equal choice among many?
That is certainly the trajectory that you are seeing in that secular culture. “There is no such thing as truth. There is your truth and my truth and you have no right to force your beliefs on me.” There was a day when the church was central to culture. Then it became kind of marginal or peripheral. Now, it is considered dangerous by some… The first thing we want to do of course is to find what it is that the Bible actually says about a particular subject as opposed to what people think we think it says… The ground is level at the foot of the cross…I want to defend biblical truth because it is best for you, not because I am trying to force my beliefs or legislate morality…I absolutely concede that, tragically, many people have come across in these conversations in ways that genuinely are homophobic, bigoted, prejudiced and unkind and I think unconstitutional…We have to unlearn that. You have to earn the right to build the bridges in order to communicate biblical truth.
What expressions of authentic Christianity do you see in our world today?
It involves speaking truth. It is declaring biblical truth courageously but also compassionately. It is Peter 3, where we are told to make a defense for the hope we have, but to do so with gentleness and respect. Wherever we are seeing that, we are seeing the spirit of Jesus as well as the word of Jesus being communicated and defended and made persuasive in the larger culture. It involves people being Salt and Light where they are supposed to be Salt and Light as God leads them. I am not allowed to say about you but I do not say to you.
I am seeing it expressed around the world in encouraging ways. For example, believers in Cuba are paying a huge price to make public their faith in Jesus. Their children get the worst school assignments, the worst jobs, the worst houses and sometimes far worse than that. Yet the courage of their faith, their compassion toward the local officials, even the national officials, their desire to be Salt and Light and see a transforming difference in their culture, is why there have been more than a million new Christians in Cuba in the last ten years. Quick example of that. One of the churches we worked with in Cuba some years ago was able to rebuild its sanctuary. They saved every nail from the old building, then shared the materials with the entire village. It is that kind of compassion, that kind of speaking the truth in love that is showing people the reality of Jesus in us and it is incredibly compelling.
How should those who identify themselves as Christians then live?
At the end of the day that really is the question, is not it? Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). “Follow” does not mean just walk behind Me along some terrain. It means imitate Me. It means be what I am. It is the body of Christ, manifesting the spirit of Christ. The biggest obstacle I see to this in my own experience and in my pastoral experience over these decades is self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency is spiritual suicide. The belief that we can follow Jesus and do better by human effort, human achievement and by trying harder is kind of an American ethos. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, get up earlier, stay up later, try harder, work longer. All of that does not work spiritually. I have to start every day by getting off the throne and enthroning Jesus, asking the Holy Spirit to take control of my mind and my life and author my thoughts and speak through me and use me to do His work and then walk through the day in the power of the Spirit to say what He asks me to say and go where He leads me to go into partnership with Him.
How have you grown in your understanding of who God? How do you see Jesus at work in our world today?
I came in contact with the writings of Henri Nouwen and it was there that for the first time since my salvation that I came to realize that before Jesus wants me to work for Him, He wants me to walk with him. What He is after is a personal, intuitive, intimate, daily, consecrated relationship with Him. My life is not nearly so much about what others think or even what I think. On my good days I remember that. I would love to tell you that every day for me is that kind of good day. On my good days, if I am empowered by the Spirit, it is living the life of Christ through me. It is being the body of Christ, the temple of the Spirit and manifesting Jesus by the power of the Spirit. On my bad days I fall back into “What can I do to almost to earn the right to be saved? What can I do to justify myself? What can I do to be more popular with others? What can I do to perform more effectively? What can I do to possess more of the world? When I fall back into that, God becomes a means to my end. On my good days, I remember Jesus loves me. He loves me because He loves me. He does not love me because of anything I have done her can do. He loves me because God is love and what He most wants is a personal relationship with me.
Alfred North Whitehead said “Great people plant trees they will never sit under.” Oswald Chambers said “A river touches shores the source never sees.” I am going to be faithful and trust God to make the difference. It is dying to self daily. We measure success by faithfulness. Mother Teresa was once asked how she would measure success. She said, “I do not believe our Lord ever spoke of success. He spoke of faithfulness and love.” I am convinced she is right.
I want to add a word of support for what the Army is doing and the way in which you are doing it, the way you are incarnating the spirit of Christ. Some years ago, I heard a preacher say about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, “When we stand before Jesus one day, he will not ask to examine our title. He will ask to look at our towel.” I believe the dirty towel with which the Army is serving Jesus by washing the feet out of love for our Lord is what He is wanting all of us in our own way to emulate.