Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Review of Worldliness by C. J. Mahaney

This review will be published in an upcoming issue of Modern Reformation magazine.


As the editor and contributor, C. J. Mahaney begins the book Worldliness by posing the provocative question of whether I John 2:15 is still in our Bibles, or if we have, in true Jeffersonian fashion, simply cut out the beloved disciple’s exhortation: “Do not love the world” (p. 15).

The reason for such a metaphorical excision is that the very command gives rise to more questions than it does answers, such as:

Does it mean I can’t watch MTV or go to an R-rated movie? Do I have to give up my favorite TV shows? … How do I know if I’m spending too much time playing games or watching YouTube clips on my computer? … Can a Christian try to make lots of money, own a second home, drive a nice car, and enjoy the luxuries of modern life? … How do I know if I’m guilty of the sin of worldliness? (p. 17)
These are certainly important questions to ask, particularly in light of Mahaney’s observation, borrowed from James Hunter, that Christians have “lost a measure of clarity” with respect to how we relate to the world (p. 21). “We have softened,” says Mahaney, to the point where the adjective worldly and the noun worldliness have lost much of their meaning in the contemporary church (p. 22). Against the Christian culture of capitulation Mahaney rightly insists that “The greater our difference from the world, the more true our testimony for Christ—and the more potent our witness against sin” (p. 23). Worldliness, Mahaney writes, “is a passionate plea to a generation for whom the dangers of worldliness are perhaps more perilous than for any that has gone before” (p. 24).

Mahaney continues in his introductory chapter to define what it is, exactly, we’re not to love: “The world we’re not to love is the organized system of human civilization that is actively hostile to God and alienated from God” (p. 26, emphasis original). More specifically, worldliness is “a love for this fallen world. It’s loving the values and pursuits of the world that stand opposed to God” (p. 27). Some specific issues that the authors address throughout the book are the media, music, stuff, and clothes.

Worldliness closes with a chapter whose title is meant to be something of an ironic surprise: “How to Love the World” (written by Jeff Purswell). Here the author insists that “to read the message of this book as a call merely to avoidance is to misunderstand it…. It would be equally tragic if we defined our relationship with the world simply in terms of negation” (p. 140). In this chapter, Purswell seeks to demonstrate how it is that a Christian should love, and faithfully live in, this present world.

After providing a brief biography of the human story following the pattern of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, Purswell draws or attention to the all-important (and often ignored) fact that it is not the created order per se that we are called to avoid (as if the physical world, as such, is evil as the Gnostics insist). On the contrary, writes Purswell, the believer is a spiritual exile and a geographical earthling, and the lens of Scripture allows the Christian pilgrim an “enhanced enjoyment of the world” (p. 148):

Although the fall brought frustration and corruption even to natural creation, it remains a gift from God to be acknowledged, appreciated, and enjoyed…. It may sound strange to ears tuned to discern danger in all talk about “the world,” but Paul seems just as concerned about a failure to appreciate creation as he is about the tendency to worship it (pp. 150, 151).
“For the heart transformed by the gospel,” Purswell writes, “the physical world holds great promise as a worship-producing source of pleasure and provision that opens the eyes to God and engenders worship of God” (p. 151).

I certainly appreciate the way Worldliness concludes with some instruction concerning how to love the world without loving it—affirming, as it were, that “This Is My Father’s World” and that “This World Is Not My Home”—but I still feel that the world gets a bit short-changed by Mahaney and the other contributors. Despite the very helpful biblical-theological emphases throughout, Worldliness fails to adequately appreciate just how significant the fourth category is in the creation-fall-redemption-consummation motif. If this present age is provisional and will one day be overthrown by an eternal age to come, and if the transformation for which we long is to be experienced in the resurrection, then it follows (especially if one is an amillennialist) that earth and its common blessings are simply that: earthly and common. Furthermore, the Reformed distinction between the sacred and secular realms can be understood within this framework, with the former referring to heavenly realities and the latter denoting earthly ones. But Worldliness explicitly denies this distinction, with Purswell actually calling for its “demolition.” According to him, the dominion mandate should guard us from being “plagued by the tendency to compartmentalize some aspects of our lives as spiritual, good, and holy and others as unspiritual, unimportant, and amoral” (p. 155). Setting aside his failure to read the dominion mandate through the lens of New Testament eschatology, Purswell’s forcing us to choose between an earthly pursuit’s being either “holy” or “unimportant” is a false dilemma that omits the option of “common.” If art, sports, or cooking are neither demonic nor divine, then there is no reason why they cannot be enjoyed for their own sakes without the added pressure to baptize, redeem, or in some sense Christianize them.

The only other area of disappointment with this book centers on the fact that, for the authors of Worldliness, the all-important task of distinguishing ourselves from the world is pursued on an almost completely individual level. While there is little doubt that the believer needs instruction on how to combat his own worldliness and sin, no Reformed Christian should underestimate the role that the visible church plays in setting ourselves apart from the citizens of this present evil age. In fact, one may go as far as to suggest that the primary way that we distinguish ourselves from nonbelievers is by our sacred activity, which primarily occurs in worship every Lord’s Day as we are ushered into glory and truly leave the world behind.

These issues aside, Worldliness is a very necessary and helpful book which will undoubtedly aid believers in the task of living in the world while not being of it.