Review: By the Waters of Bablyon

aniolScott Aniol’s new book, By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, argues at length against the architects of missional evangelism—not because Aniol thinks the attractional model (of Hybels, Warren, et al.) is better, but because he doesn’t see cultural forms as neutral, suitable for any message including the gospel.

Here’s what I take to be his thesis paragraph for the book:

Although the missional church seems to correctly recognize the nature of the Christendom paradigm in western civilization and in many cases rightly discerns the integral relationship between Christianity and culture during that period, it appears to view this development in the history of the church as entirely negative, with very few positive fruits. At the very least, most missional advocates see what happened as merely neutral contextualization of the church’s worship to culture, yet their very quick dismissal of worship forms coming out of that period as simply antiquated “relics” reveals what may be a simplistic understanding of the impact of the church upon culture during that period. This perspective limits their ability to recognize the strengths of the cultural forms from that period in expressing Christian values and the vast differences that exist today with regard to culture and contextualization in worship.

In other words, Aniol wants the missional church to stop seeing modern (pop-)cultural forms as neutral and to start instead seeing those forms which were shaped by Christendom as the most suitable forms for worship. (Best quote in book: “The Israelites wept while they remained in captivity because they could not sing the songs that rightfully belonged in their Temple in their land. Today, Christians do not weep over their captivity; instead, they sing the songs of their captives.”)

I agree with him this far (and a lot further, though not in every respect), and I was greatly helped by being introduced to missional thinking as a self-conscious body of thought rather than as a smattering of similar thinkers, the way I had previously perceived them. Aniol did his homework, it seems to me, in listening to the advocates of the missional model. He is even able to give heartfelt appreciation for their insights. (He praises missional thinking, for example, for “its strong emphasis upon fervent evangelism and its recognition of cultural shifts in the West.”)

Aniol is at his strongest when he does two things:

1) When he shows the connection between worldview and cultural form.

2) When he tries to map our modern concept of “culture” (a conception to which he does not, in principle, object) back onto the biblical category of behavior (Greek: ἀνάστροφη).

If there’s anything left for beleaguered conservatives to argue for—and there has to be; I, for one, am not giving up—in the face of an almost all-out capitulation to contemporary worship forms, it’s the idea that culture is not neutral. I like Aniol’s proposal that we map “culture” into the NT category of “behavior” or “way of life.” If we’re successful, it becomes possible to say with biblical authority behind us that certain of those ways are “futile” (1 Pet 1:18) and ought to be put behind us.

To say this today—to say that Western choral music is better or more advanced than Zambian choral music, or that Shakespeare is better than Beavis and You-know-who—is tantamount to being racist at worst and elitist at best. It’s to compare and contrast what multiculturalism insists must be kept in separate silos and given equal respect (on this one simply must read Stanley Fish’s article, “Boutique Multiculturalism”). Aniol, however, insists right back that if you equate race and culture, then all moral comparisons of one culture to another will be ruled out of court as racism; he says that culture can and should be evaluated, not just accepted—and that cultural forms have meaning. I’m with Aniol against Beavis. Aesthetic relativism is not a Christian virtue.

But I think Aniol makes a few errors (not unique to him) in his interpretation of the transformationalism associated with (or underlying?) missional thinking. I don’t know missional thinking wonderfully well, but I wrote a basically transformationalist book and I’ve dug fairly deep into transformationalist themes. In particular, I’ve found very helpful the writings of Al Wolters, whom Aniol singles out for special criticism (this is entirely appropriate given Wolters’ pre-eminent spot among the modern transformationalists). But whereas Scott seems to think that Wolters views cultural forms as neutral, it’s important to note that Wolters actually views them as positively good—and yet twisted by the fall.

Far from undercutting Scott’s overall argument, I think this adjustment could help him by defusing objections. He does acknowledge at different points in the book that by God’s common grace, predominantly non-Christian cultures can come up with beautiful and worthy cultural artifacts: musical compositions, novels, paintings, sculptures. And I think he’s completely right to argue that Christendom gave us an artistic and musical tradition deeply shaped by the Bible, and is therefore something we ought to cultivate and not jettison (we are to “work and keep” our culture). But in his efforts to defend that tradition I think he protests too much against 1) other culture’s forms and even 2) the bastardized cultural forms of today. I think it’s important to recognize that rap and rock, for example, have discovered something true about God’s world (hear me out!), namely that there are musical ways to express bravado and sexuality, respectively. (I acknowledge that this is a massive generalization, but I think it holds true as such.) If there are ever times when public expressions of bravado or sexuality are called for, then those musical forms may be righteously called for, too. I just happen to think that bravado is very rarely, and sexuality just about never, called for in public. The fact that we are awash not just in sexual images but in sexual musical sounds is something about our culture that the Bible challenges, not accommodates. (An example: I like a cappella multi-tracking, and I noticed that a particular YouTube artist did an a cappella duet of the famous Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah.” One of the commenters said, “Alisha’s voice is AMAZING, I think it’s a little bit too sensual for this particular song though, as incredible as it is it seems a bit out of place.” He was right. Another example: a GQ reporter visited Carl Lentz’s Hillsong NYC church and couldn’t figure out why the worship leader was so sensuous; “It made my body feel confused,” said the reporter.)

I think rock music is mostly degraded and rap music mostly even worse; I don’t listen to either. But I still say that the inability and disinclination to find the good, albeit the twisted good, at the heart of cultural forms gets Aniol into some unnecessary awkward spots. This is where his near-equation of culture and the NT’s “behavior” also falters: he’s right that it’s impossible to answer the questions, “Is behavior good or bad?” You have to know what behavior is in view. But I think you can answer the question, “Is culture good or bad?” The “making-something-of-the-world” which we call culture is, as I’ve argued at length, good. All cultures today are twisted, but they’re the twisting of something good, not the creation of something bad. There is no such thing.

So when Aniol says (in reference to 1 Pet 1:18), “True, redemption results in transformation, but this transformation results in entirely different culture than the ‘former manner of life,’” I find myself asking, Why, then, is Scott recognizably American and not Djiboutian or Kazakhstanian? The essence of discernment is keeping babies and throwing out bathwater, and only a transformationalist, cultural-mandate paradigm makes that possible in my mind.

Scott is nearest the mark in criticizing Wolters-type transformationalism when he discovers what he thinks is a fundamental category mistake in Wolters’ application of his “structure” and “direction” concepts. Aniol thinks dance and music are not structures but directions—directions of a more fundamental structure called communication. I disagree, but I have trouble explaining why. I think Aniol has hit a weak spot, and I’d be in his debt if he would push on it more incisively. Either I need to toughen up or he needs to hone his spear tip here. There’s room for mutually edifying discussion.

I also thought Scott would do well to interact with Ken Myers of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Scott said, “For the transformationalist, only the content of culture expresses worldview, not cultural forms.” I take Myers to be a Class A transformationalist, and it seems to me the man exists to deny that cultural forms have no connection to worldview! I’m a class D transformationalist, maybe D-, compared to Myers and Wolters, but I wholeheartedly agree with Aniol that cultural forms bear worldviewish meaning.

This is a serious book written by a serious conservative. Aniol should not be blown off but listened to. I told him personally a few years ago what I say to him again: keep going. Keep maturing. Keep developing your argument. Listen hard to your tradition and your critics and your students and your experiences and your history books and, preeminently, your Bible—and keep serving the church. Some of this book’s material felt like it took a while to come to print. I’d like to read a fresh book on the same topic by the same author in 10–15 years. I count Scott a friend, and honor him as someone who has worked hard to give to Christ’s body. I felt he worked to be fair and gracious to his opponents, but he’s exploring an area of theology his tribe (he teaches at SWBTS) hasn’t been involved in for very long. Again I say, keep going, friend.

Bonus Thoughts on Select Paragraphs

That’s all for the formal review. Truly dedicated readers can go on to read the following paragraphs from Aniol along with my annotations.

This quasi-transformationalist perspective has therefore shifted the missional approach from the early articulations to how it is actually practiced today. The earliest missional advocates sought to distinguish between the gospel and western culture, which they believed had merged with Christendom. But the transformational impulse imbedded in the concept of missio Dei itself is rooted in Christendom ideas. Van Gelder admits as much: The understanding of what we refer to today as “God’s mission” was developed in these confessional documents within a worldview of Christendom in which the church was established by the state. It was thus assumed that the church was responsible for the world, with the church’s direct involvement defined primarily in terms of the magistrate’s obligation to carry out Christian duties on behalf of the church in the world. Within a Christendom worldview, the church and the world occupied the same location: the social reality of the church represented the same social reality of the world within that particular context.37 Thus, more recent missional authors are falling back into the error they supposedly repudiate. Instead of advocating Christ as the transformer of culture, they are viewing Christ above culture once again. They are accommodating culture.

Mark: So Aniol’s problem need not be with transformationalism but with Christ above culture paradigms which don’t see the world as worldly.

Like transformationalists, missionalists see no sacred/secular distinction and argue that all of life is worship

Mark: But in my own transformationalist book, I carefully distinguished the sacred from the secular while still asserting that they do not constitute a dualism. I used the analogy of the sabbath: the sabbath is specially to the Lord, even though there is no day of the week that is not to the Lord.

The culture produced from unbelief is not neutral; it is depraved. As Snoeberger notes, “Cultural neutrality is a myth and culture is hostile toward God; just as man is individually depraved in microcosm, so also culture is corporately depraved in macrocosm.”

Mark: I think you have to read Aniol too carefully not to come away with the idea that culture is bad, or at least not to be confused when he speaks positively of common grace.

Paul had evidently spent some time studying the religion of Athens, and he used that knowledge to present the gospel in the best way possible, but what Paul thought about this religious culture is enlightening. Verse 16 reveals that Paul was “provoked” (parōxyneto) by the culture he saw in Athens. He did not adopt their culture; he did not approve of their culture; he despised it.

Mark: This is a bit of a leap: Paul despised their culture? Did he despise their learning? Their architecture? Their sculpture? Their poetry? The text doesn’t say he was provoked by their culture but by the fact that the city was full of idols.

Paul did communicate the message of the gospel differently to pagans than he did to Jews. However, the difference involved the fact that he could build on the truth of the Jewish religion, while his attitude toward the religion of the pagans was one of disgust and condemnation. He did not immerse himself in their “culture” in order to reach them; instead, he exploited the ignorance and superstition of their religion in order to confront them with the truths of the gospel. Rather than highlighting similarities between his worldview and that of the Athenians and seeking to express the gospel in their philosophical categories, as missional authors suggest, Paul was pressing the antithesis between their worldviews and ways of life in order to reveal the inconsistencies in their own thinking and highlight the authority of the Christian worldview.

Mark: I don’t think Paul’s Acts 17 address to the Areopagus can be enlisted in the service of the missional folks or of Aniol. The basic point does seem to be that Paul tailored his message to some degree to his audience. Whether he approved of their respective cultures or not must be determined from other texts, or left undetermined.

One of the clearest examples from Israel’s time in Babylonian captivity of a kind of discerning contextualization that I am advocating is found in Daniel 1. Here Daniel both embraces some aspects of Babylonian culture (their “literature and language”), yet he rejects other aspects (“the king’s food”). He did not simply accept uncritically all of their culture, but neither did he reject it all either. This kind of critical evaluation of culture is more fitting with a biblical understanding of the nature of culture presented in the last chapter, and reflects the New Testament’s emphasis as well.

Mark: But that’s precisely what I’d say, and it’s just what transformationalist Andy Crouch says—I don’t think he’s established that the missional folks would disagree here.

What is clear from this exploration is that each of the three primary post-Christendom approaches to culture has strengths and weaknesses when compared to the New Testament’s understanding of culture as behavior. The separatist approach rightly recognizes the fundamental antithesis between belief and unbelief, but it fails to also recognize commonality that exists due to common grace and the fact that even unbelievers sometimes “borrow” a biblical worldview. The transformationalist approach rightly recognizes the reality of common grace on the cultures of unbelievers and the need for Christians to express their values in every sphere of life, but they do so to the neglect of any real antithesis in the cultures themselves. Perhaps the two-kingdom approach is closest to the New Testament perspective, with its balance of both antithesis and commonality, but it fails to emphasize that a Christian’s involvement in the culture should manifest his Christian values and actually has evangelistic impact.

Mark: This is a key paragraph where Aniol summarizes the three major views (though I don’t remember him properly introducing the “separatist” perspective earlier) on culture he’s sparring with and offers summary critiques and praises.

Scripture itself comes from God in various literary forms, and therefore these inspired forms are authoritative as well. Therefore cultural expression is essential to the worship elements themselves and whether or not they faithfully comport to Scripture’s teaching… What kinds of poetic expression and aesthetic forms God chose to use in the communication of his truth should inform and regulate the kinds of cultural expressions churches use as they communicate the gospel and disciple believers into acceptable worshipers of God… The same is true for musical forms used in corporate worship. Although there are no musical scores in Scripture, and there is no mandate that worshipers today use the exact same musical idioms used, for example, in the Jewish temple, the aesthetic forms in Scripture, when properly studied and understood, do form boundaries and guidelines sufficient for the regulation of musical forms in corporate worship.

Mark: This begs to be fleshed out. How, precisely, could the literary forms of Scripture regulate the musical forms of the contemporary Western church? The connection between the two is too tenuous. I don’t think this is the way forward. I think Aniol is looking to the Bible to do something God didn’t intend for it to do. And I know this because of the hopeless morass we’d be in if we tried to argue that our hymns reflect biblical literary forms! I’ve encountered this idea before, and I notice that those who use it don’t adopt the literary forms of the Bible to make their arguments; Aniol’s book is not a lament or a narrative or a Gospel or an apocalypse—it is instead a fairly standard 21st century non-fiction, Christian book. If he doesn’t apply his thesis directly from the Bible (read: literature) to his book (read: literature), then how can anyone expect to apply the thesis from literature to music?

The conservative evangelical missional church movement. Although the movement has contributed positively to evangelicalism in many ways, including its strong emphasis upon fervent evangelism and its recognition of cultural shifts in the West, I have nevertheless argued that deficiencies in its understanding of the nature of culture, the posture of contextualization, and the relationship between worship and mission leaves the missional philosophy of worship without clear biblical and theological support and, ironically, renders it less able to accomplish God’s mission for the church. I have insisted, rather, that God’s mission is to create worshipers for his own glory; he accomplishes this mission through redemption, and he has tasked the church with making disciples who will worship him acceptably. This requires that churches communicate God’s truth to both believers and unbelievers using cultural expressions that fittingly shape the content in similar ways that the Bible itself does. Only with this understanding will churches accomplish the mission God has given them for his glory

Mark: This is a thesis summation.

Disclosure of material connection: Kregel gave me this book to review. They didn’t attach any strings that I could find.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

2 thoughts on “Review: By the Waters of Bablyon”

  1. Great review! There’s a lot of helpful stuff here. I think I’ll have to read the book.
    I completely agree that cultural forms are not neutral. I like to think of culture as “social language”. By putting it in its rightful category of communication, we can bring many scriptural principles to bear on cultural expressions. For example, here’s how I’ve thought through the issue of music: http://iancolumba.com/music-choices-amoral/

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