As summer approaches and people begin flocking to the beaches, we will once again hear the warnings of the dangers of rip currents (sometimes erroneously referred to as riptides, which are a slightly different phenomenon) and, sometimes, tragic stories of individuals getting caught in them and drowning. A rip current is narrow and flows strongly away from a beach. The current is so strong that swimmers can be carried miles out to sea if they do not use the proper technique to remove themselves from its grip, which is to swim perpendicular to the direction of the current until you are free from it. Many people panic and attempt to swim directly back to shore, which is practically impossible to do. Thus, they often drown from exhaustion.
I recently began reading a book by Carl Trueman, entitled, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution. I highly recommend it if you are suffering some emotional and spiritual whiplash at how the culture has changed over the past 20 years. I admit I have found myself aghast at how, not only the culture, but often the Church has gone from calling certain actions sin to celebrating and affirming those same actions. Using research that goes back centuries, Trueman contends that one of the main reasons is, what he terms, the “cultural imaginary.” Basically, this is how regular folks “think about the world. How they imagine it to be, how they act intuitively in relations to it…It is the totality of the way we look at our world, to make sense of it and to make sense of our behavior within it.” (pp. 37-38)
The premise of social imaginary is that the beliefs of the elites flow down to the rest of us not as theories, but in permeating the culture slowly over time where it becomes just part of the cultural imaginary. The vast majority didn’t study these theories; rather they just became acceptable over time because more and more people came to understand this is how the world should work. From my perch on the University campus, I have seen this at work for nearly four decades. In the early 80’s, “homophobia,” became a common term on campus describing why many were opposed to homosexuality. Twenty years later it was in common use in the culture. “Tolerance” was another word that emerged in the 80’s. It was a somewhat loaded term as used on campus because it meant acceptance of whatever anyone did. Tolerance then morphed into “celebrate” as more and more professors and students grew emboldened to say what they really meant. “Diversity” was another term that gained currency in the 1990’s, which basically was an expansion of celebration to include anyone and anything. All were to be affirmed, no questions asked. And, as we have seen in this century, if one does ask questions or challenges presuppositions, then another word comes into play that, again, began being used on campus—”hate speech.”
My point is not to argue the merits of these per se; rather it is to point out how beliefs/theories that are promoted within a narrow context (the University) make their way into the broader culture as they are gradually introduced and become more and more familiar within the culture as a whole. This can also be true of certain subcultures, such as Christian colleges of certain denominations, police academies, and medical schools, which impact their subcultures through these institutions. And what we see when this happens is that after a very slow beginning, the trickle becomes a current that can easily turn into a rip current, flowing so fast that, once we are caught in it, we have to be very strategic on how to free ourselves, or we get carried out to sea or drown because of exhaustion in fighting it.
Today, the Church is facing a rip current of social change. There are those who find themselves carried away by it, far from the biblical moorings that have long kept the Church from heretical teachings and practices. There are also those who are fighting the current, trying to swim back to shore, but are finding themselves weary or exhausted. Neither is a good strategy to keep the Church alive and thriving.
The best strategy against this cultural rip current is the same as against the physical one—get out of the grip of the current. And the only way we can do that is letting God have his way with us through his Word and the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul tells Timothy: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (II Timothy 2:16-17)
What we must realize is the cultural imaginary has become a rip current. It once was slowly developing, but it has become so powerful that, even if we wanted to, we cannot fight it directly. But equally dangerous is being swept away by it; that we just get caught up in it and it carries us away.
There are many things, and not just the ones involving sexuality, that are easily accepted now without qualm. They are becoming normal to all of us. Therein lies the danger. Normal is not to be determined by the current cultural mores, but by the truth as laid before us in the Scriptures. The Church should be unwavering, except when submitting herself to the Word and is found in error. It is not to be carried unmoored by the cultural rip current. It is to be firmly anchored in the Word of God.
If you feel you are in the grip of the cultural rip current, but sense the danger, don’t go with it out of fear, nor fight against it to exhaustion. Rather swim perpendicular to it—get out of it’s grip! And the way to do that is to engage the Word and allow it, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to teach you the truth, to lovingly rebuke you if you have been in open rebellion, to correct you if you have been wrongly taught, and to train you to live righteously, which is the best defense against the rip current of our day because it demonstrates a better, more joyful way of life, and can lead others to escape its grip as well.
© Jim Musser 2021 All Scripture references are from the New International Version, 2011.