In Carl Trueman’s Strange New World (a condensed version of his illuminating The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self), he warns against the temptation to narrowly focus on the specific issues of the day to the point where we lose sight of the big picture:
One of the temptations at a time of tremendous flux and change is to fixate upon the immediate challenges to the Christian faith. Now, it is surely not a bad thing to prioritize the most pressing problems the church faces and address them with a degree of urgency. The sale of indulgences, for example, was a major problem in 1517, and it was right for Luther to focus on that, rather than spend his time writing on the issue of same-sex marriage, a matter of no import whatsoever in the early sixteenth century. Yet there is a danger here: we can become so preoccupied with specific threats that we neglect the important fact that Christian truth is not a set of isolated and unconnected claims but rather stands as a coherent whole. The church’s teaching on gender, marriage, and sex is a function of her teaching on what it means to be human. The doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation are important foundations for addressing the specific challenges of our time. If, as I have argued in this book, modern sexual and identity politics are functions of deeper notions of selfhood, then we need first to know what the Christian view of the self is in order to address them. And as the Bible teaches that the human self is made in the image of God, we need a good grasp of the doctrine of God. In short, we can stand strong at this cultural moment and address the specific challenges we face only if our foundations in God’s truth are broad and deep. [Emphasis added.]
The key point here is this: “Christian truth is not a set of isolated and unconnected claims but rather stands as a coherent whole” (a point Greg makes so well in The Story of Reality). Without an understanding of the whole, the disconnected parts will not make sense, and when the parts don’t make sense, why not simply jettison them one by one when they become a nuisance?
Sadly, if Ligonier’s recent study on “The State of Theology” in America is any indication, this jettisoning of essential parts of Christianity is well underway, with 38% of evangelicals agreeing that “religious belief is a matter of personal opinion; it is not about objective truth,” 43% agreeing Jesus was not God, and 65% agreeing with the statement “Everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God.” It’s clear something has gone seriously wrong in the American church. I suspect there are many reasons for this, but however we got here, now is the time for us to pick up the pieces of our fellow Christians’ crumbling foundation and help them fit those pieces back together into a beautiful, meaningful whole.
So, what should we do as Christian apologists, teachers, and mentors to “equip the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12–13)?
First, keep in mind what, according to that Ephesians passage, is most important: maturity in the knowledge of the Son of God—something that requires well-rounded knowledge of Scripture and theology along with a life-changing working out of that knowledge in our lives (2 Pet. 1:2–11), empowered by the work of the Holy Spirit. Pressing issues in the culture, while important, are secondary to this. While those controversial issues entail branches that grow naturally from the root, it’s the root that must first be planted, established, and nurtured. The branches depend on the root, not the other way around. When the branches are dying, that’s a clear indication the root is being neglected. Yes, prune the branches, but don’t prune them at the expense of nourishing the root.
Second, when facing any cultural issue, follow it down to that foundational root so you know what larger idea needs to be addressed. Trueman does this in the quote above when he notes the deeper ideas behind the controversies over gender, marriage, and sex—our understanding of what it means to be human. Going even deeper, our understanding of what a human being is and how we can best flourish depends on whether or not we were created by God and even whether or not God exists.
Seek to understand, and then help the people around you to understand, the big picture—how the parts are connected to each other in a meaningful whole. Don’t ignore the specific cultural challenges, but do so remembering that they cannot be addressed—or even understood—apart from the full truth of reality.