Wineskins Archive

January 9, 2014

At the Turning of the Century (Sept – Oct 1996)

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<co_text>by John McRay
September – October, 1996

24In 1947, A & C Black, Ltd. reprinted the 1922 lectures of Albert Schweitzer under the title The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization, the first volume of which was subtitled “The Philosophy of Civilization, Part One.” In its opening pages Schweitzer, a man who earned five doctorates and yet chose to give his life in service to mankind as a medical doctor in Africa, exclaimed:

It is clear now to everyone that the suicide of civilization is in progress. What remains of it isno longer safe. It is still standing, indeed, because it was not exposed to the destructive pressure which overwhelmed the rest, but, like the rest,is built upon rubble, and the next landslide will very likely carry it away (p.3).

The second volume was published a year later, and it begins with this observation: “There is one elementary fact which is quite obvious. The disastrous feature of our civilization is that it is far more developed materially than spiritually” (p. 2).

Richard Neibuhr has reminded us in his book Christ and Culture that religion and culture are so intertwined that there is no discernible difference between them in our minds. Jesus was painfully aware of this when he said to the Apostles, “Behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” They, like the ancient prophets before them, were sent to their own culture with the Word of God, and that culture devoured them…beat them in their synagogues, dragged them before governors and kings, delivered up by their own brothers and sisters (Matthew 10:16).

Schweitzer was right in 1922 and 1923. He was right in 1947 when his words were reprinted. And he is right today! Our civilization is, always has been, and always will be, more developed materially than spiritually.

The mission of the church has always been to take the Word of God to the culture as it exists in a given time. The mission remains the same—since both God and human nature remain the same—“Go teach all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20). But, equally important, is the church’s mission to itself. It must not only save the lost, it must also nourish the saved (1 Thessalonians 2:9-12; Titus 2:11-14).

A few years ago Time magazine described the “Unholy Row” among television pulpiteers in Texas, Virginia, and South Carolina, painfully reminding us that God’s church must be pure if it is to be a light to those in darkness. What must unbelievers think when a well-known television evangelist is sentenced to 45 years in prison for defrauding his followers!

What kind of world do we face today, as we get ready for a new century, trying to inculcate into its multifaceted culture the ever-appropriate and eternally indispensable gospel of Jesus Christ? How different is it from the world we are leaving behind?

At the end of World War II, we were not yet familiar with television, surrogate mothers, in vitro fertilization (test tube babies), talking automobiles with computerized dashboards, lesbian “marriages,” gay rights, AIDS, Watergate, personal computers, video cassette recorders, car washes, freeways, motels, supermarkets, or shopping malls. How things have changed in a half century!

Fifty years ago, the cultural context of America made the methodology of the church’s mission clear: homes with a father, mother, and children together were the norm; clear standards of right and wrong existed, even when they were not always practiced; honor and self-respect were prized highly; sex was viewed as personal, private, and meaningful only in the context of marital love—aberrations were not flaunted in public; homosexuality was considered an anomaly and its practice viewed with shame by those who knew that such aberrant tendencies had to be controlled; and the word “gay” was still a term describing people who were happy and wholesome.

That was a time when dope addiction was rare, usually the result of medicinal problems arising out of ill health and not a means of escaping the realities of a life with which one no longer had the ability or desire to cope; it was a time when people did not expect to have whatever they wanted the instant they wanted it—a time before McDonald’s built the first assembly-line fast food chain, teaching us that we need not wait long for anything.

My wife, who teaches sixth grade social studies in the suburbs of Chicago, asked her class recently what they would do if they did not have any food for dinner. A student from India said he would have to do without. Four children reared in this country raised their hands, and three of them said, “We would steal it!”

Fifty years ago, in the summertime, my family regularly sat on the front porch of our Oklahoma home, which was neither air-conditioned nor insulated, and waited for the house to cool down so we could go inside and sleep. Neighbors sat in each other’s front yards exchanging stories about their lives. The children listened with fascination and learned about their family history and that of their neighbors. Now, we shut our neighbors out, close our blinds, and turn ourselves into couch potatoes, mesmerized by the often mindless babble emanating from the television tube. Conversation is squelched and creativity is smothered.

I am not suggesting that the “good old days” were the best. In reality, there never were any “good old days.” Some times are better than others, and the mission of the church is more difficult in some cultural situations than in others. We are living in a time which has its own unique cultural phenomena and the church must recognize that its methods of spreading the gospel and nourishing the church in this society will be influenced by that culture.

Schweitzer’s words are very much apropos to our current situation—our culture is far more advanced materially than it is spiritually—but this has always been so. The 1990s are as different as the 1980s were from the decades preceding them, in some ways better and in some ways worse. It is our task to minister to these needs in our time, not in the same way we ministered to society earlier, but with the same message. The world will determine the agenda and the church will provide the message—Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and always (cf. Hebrews 13:8). As I look at the world we now face in this decade as we prepare for a new century, I see some areas in which our ministry will need refocusing to be most effective for Christ.


Loneliness is one of the major problems of our time. The Census Bureau states that “In 1985, 20.6 million persons lived alone. They accounted for 11% of all adults, and their one-person households accounted for 24% of all households. Since 1960 the number of persons living alone has nearly tripled.” In the 1970s the number of men living by themselves increased 97% and the number of women by 55%. Sociologist Fran Goldscheider was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as observing that “it is conceivable that a young adult today could spend as much as 50% of his or her life living alone—before marriage, between marriages, and if it’s a woman, at the end of her life.

“The group that grew the fastest during the 1970s was the young adults, the majority of whom were young men. In that decade the number of never married people under 30 living by themselves more than tripled.” This changed in the 1980s when economics forced more young adults under 24 to move back with parents or remain with them. “In one respect the number of people living alone is simply a symptom of other changes: low birth rates, high divorce rates, long lives and late marriages.” Here is an area of ministry that must not be ignored in the 1990s—or the 2000s.

Loneliness exists even in marriages. Although 98% of the people in the U. S., in a 1980 study, said that two people sharing a home was the ideal living arrangement, almost half the marriages in this country end in divorce. Surprisingly, a nationwide survey, conducted by Philip Shaver and Carin Rubenstein, found that “the loneliest people are adolescents and young adults and that the elderly are not usually lonely” (In Search of Intimacy, 1982).

Sociologist Fran Goldscheider at Brown University is among those who are especially concerned about these conditions. Because the highest concentrations of people who live alone are the young and the old, she sees those groups becoming invisible to each other. She speculates that living alone reduces young people’s need to live in a family. She worries that “we are giving up the insurance system of the family, the one that protects and defends in crises, and that we are losing our ability to live interdependently.”

Loneliness is undoubtedly a major factor in the current drug abuse epidemic, the low performance of so many “latch-key” students in elementary and secondary school, the high rate of alcoholism among young people, and the “bee-hive syndrome” among homosexuals that causes them to group together and flaunt their immoral lifestyle in public.



A second major issue facing the church at the turn of the century is the change that is occurring in the moral and ethical climate of this country. The problem is not simply that what a previous generation regarded as wrong is now regarded as right, but that our generation is teetering on the brink of a moral dilemma in which there is no right and wrong—no black and white—only endless shades of gray.

We are already experiencing a breakdown in the ethical standards that society itself, not the church, has set for its politicians and its business people. This is reflected in the action of the Harvard Business School, which has established a faculty position called the “Chair for Ethics” in order to provide teaching on ethical behavior for its business majors.

Wall Street is constantly scandalized by the dishonesty of some of its leading figures. Time magazine reported that “What began as the decade of the entrepreneur is becoming the age of the pin-striped outlaw” (May 25, 1987, p. 22). Scores of banks, including some of the largest in the nation, have been closed by the federal government over marginal or outright dishonest practices at the highest levels.

Forty-nine of our national political leaders, found guilty of wrong-doing, were paraded before the public in cameo photos in this Time article, like criminals on a post office bulletin board. The article in the ethics section of the magazine proceeded to answer its own question, “What’s Wrong?” by pointing out that the heedless lack of restraint in their behavior reveals something disturbing about the national character….America… finds itself wallowing in a moral morass…. Ethics, often dismissed as a prissy Sunday School word, is now at the center of a new national debate. Put bluntly, has the mindless materialism of the ‘80s left in its wake a values vacuum?

I am concerned that presidents, senators, federal judges, supreme court justices, congressmen, and even law enforcement officers all over the nation are seemingly unable or unwilling to distinguish between right and wrong. Moral relativism is the order of the day. Ted Koppel, the ABC news commentator, exclaimed in a highly publicized commencement address at Duke University, that we have spent 5,000 years as a race of rational human beings, trying to drag ourselves out of the primeval slime by searching for truth and moral absolutes. In its present form, truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder. It is a howling reproach. What Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions.

I am sickened by the media circus created during our presidential elections. The distorted and caricatured images that are presented to the American people on national television are nothing but the product of deceit and professional manipulation. Jesse Jackson, a sometime candidate for that office, appealed to our communal sense of outrage by asking America to wake up to what is happening.


One of the great tragedies of this whole ethos, and one which will have a long term affect on the church and the home as well as our nation, is the loss of role models, especially for our youth.

The entire world was shocked by the large scale breakdown in moral integrity during the Olympics in Seoul. What happened to Ben Johnson, “the fastest man alive,” when he lost his gold medal due to the use of drugs, has been shown to be unexceptional. Time again: “In the 1983 Pan American Games, nineteen athletes were disqualified and an additional dozen from just the U. S. track and field squad scuttled home before their events. In the 1984 Olympics eleven athletes, two of them medalists, were ejected from the Games for drug abuses. Before the Seoul Games began several Americans, including 1984 cycling gold medalist Steve Hegg and national swimming champion Angel Myers, were banned for substance use.”

This is a tragedy because of what it does physically to some of the finest young athletes in the world. In the 1984 Olympics Birgit Dressel, the West German heptathlete, came in ninth. In the 1986 European championships she came in fourth. In 1987, at the age of 26, she was dead, the victim of her body’s reaction to the profusion of drugs she took in order to be a great competitor.

Tragic as this may be for the athletes involved, it is even greater because of the loss of role models to the youth of the world. Athletes hooked on cocaine, both amateur and professional, have been severely penalized in recent years. Respected colleges and universities, even Christian ones, have been penalized for recruitment violations.

And what is true in athletics is also true in the field of entertainment. What shall we say of such prominent role models as Rock Hudson, Liberace, and Magic Johnson, whose sexual aberrations resulted in AIDS or being HIV-positive? Our nation and our world are facing a major and potentially devastating epidemic with this disease if some way is not found to reintroduce moral and ethical self-restraint into our society.

One of the most regrettable losses of role models is occurring in the homes of our nation. The nuclear family with a resident father figure is no longer the norm. Teachers in large city schools have been using old and respected TV shows as assigned viewing for the students so that they can see the kind of home with which they have no experience. And, as incredible as it may seem, in states allowing lesbian “marriages,” female parents are using TV programs such as these to provide the male role model which they recognize their adoptive children need.


I am sure the ancient prophets would not be happy with our indifference to the plight of the hungry, the poor, and the suffering in our society. We are often deeply moved by the educational channel pictures of the thousands of starving people in Africa. The images are haunting—children, whose swollen faces are covered with flies; men and women, whose leather-like skin is stretched over their bones until they appear as mere painted skeletons; mothers trying to nurse their infants with empty, flat breasts; and a few relief workers ministering to them with looks of utter disbelief and hopelessness in their eyes. And where are we? Where is the food? Some say there is simply not enough food for them all. In spite of the humanitarian concerns of the world there just isn’t enough food for everyone. But is that true?

Ten years ago (September 11, 1986), the Chicago Tribune carried an article titled “Food Oversupply Leads World’s Ills!” Incredible! Food oversupply? The lead sentence said, “The single most important political and economic problem facing the world today is food surpluses, British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe warned Tuesday.” The article continued, “The problem for the world today is food surpluses, not shortages, some countries are experiencing shortages but the world as a whole is not.” If this statement had not been made by someone of Mr. Howe’s stature, it would stretch credulity.

And in the face of this ungodly scenario American farmers are going bankrupt and losing their farms because the abundance of food production has lowered prices to the point where the federal government subsidizes farmers to produce less food. Large nations such as India and China, which once suffered widespread starvation, are now food exporters.

Perhaps I do not understand what is going on in today’s world. I am no economist and claim no expertise in such matters. But I am a Christian. I am a human being. And I do possess some measure of common sense. I know this situation is not right. It is deplorable, not only in God’s sight, but in the sight of every human being who senses moral outrage at such callous indifference to human suffering. If Jesus taught us anything….if Moses taught us anything… if the prophets taught us anything… they taught us this.

We have failed in so much during this century. A new century and a new millennium are now before us. May God grant us the vision needed to cope with them as human compassion dictates and human frailty demands.Wineskins Magazine

John McRay is Professor of New Testament and Archaeology and Coordinator ofGraduate Biblical Studies at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.

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