Chapter 1 – The Modern World: On Learning to Ask the Right Questions

From the book: “Resident Aliens – A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know That Something is Wrong.” By Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon.


“The church is a colony, an island of one culture in the middle of another.” (p. 12)

The poem No Man Is an Island by John Donne opens with the lines:

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.”

We are a part of both the colony and the world in which that colony resides.

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Philippians 3:20-21, ESV)

We must not isolate ourselves within either the colony or the world. Being in the colony can be lonely. Christians must support one another. Christian relationships are essential to healthy spirituality. The Scriptures put it this way.

God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” (Genesis 2:18, ESV)

“And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him – a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:12, ESV)

Are we expected to live in cloistered isolation from the rest of the world? Let us look at how God directed the Israelites when they were exiled to Babylon. They must have felt like a colony of resident aliens.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7, ESV)

Even though we are a colony, we are still part of the world in which we live. How do we maintain a Christian perspective in a non-Christian world?

“This is why Scripture repeatedly stresses the fact that we are called to be a ‘holy’ people (2 Cor. 6:17), a concept that indicates something consecrated and set apart (Ps. 4:3).” [1]

That is what the rest of this study is about.

Chapter 1 – The Modern World: Learning to Ask the Right Questions

  • Cultural Christianity

How does the church make the Gospel credible today? Our author states,

“Christians are not naturally born… Christians are intentionally made by an adventuresome church, which has again learned to ask the right questions to which Christ alone supplies the right answers.” (p. 19)

The conflict between modern philosophy and ancient Near Eastern theology challenges us. Why should we believe in something that may have happened over 2000 years ago when we have all this modern scientific method and knowledge to guide us? Which should take precedence in our approach to life: theology or the scientific method? Historically, theologians demanded that our view of the physical world match their interpretation of the scriptures. Today, we are called to make the Bible narrative fit today’s cosmology, geology, biology, geography, etc.

Are either of these perspectives correct, or are we arguing about apples and oranges? Are we unintentionally misinterpreting the Gospel into something not intended? The Gospel is the “Good News” about God bringing salvation through His Son, Jesus. It is not a scientific treatise on the universe.

“It is the content of belief that concerns Scripture, not eradicating unbelief by means of a believable theological system.” (p. 22)

“The Bible’s concern is not if we believe but what we shall believe.” (p. 23)

This harkens back to our previous study in Uncomfortable. [2] In that study, we briefly discussed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

This is an “amorphous faith that ‘is about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs – especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance.’” [3]

“This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of sovereign divinity, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, et cetera.” [4]

Christ invites us to be a part of this alien colony, part of the family of God. Like the Israelites who came out of Egypt, we are to come out of the world and be ‘set apart’ for God. The focus is on right living rather than right thinking.

  • In the world, not of the world.

Our author argues that Roman Emperor Constantine (285-337 A.D.) declared the empire Christian in order to have Christians as allies rather than opponents. Actually, Constantine only granted tolerance of religious practice and the reduction of persecution throughout the empire in the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.). It was Emperor Theodosius I (347-395 A.D.) who declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 A.D. [5] Unfortunately, this decree also led to the persecution of non-Christians. This led to a merger of the state with Christianity.

“At the same time, February 27, 380 marks a milestone in European history, because on that day, Jewish-Christian roots were bound to those of Greek and Roman antiquity – a symbiosis that can still be felt today.” [6]

This was not something that was limited to the Roman Empire. History shows that this dynamic has continued over the centuries. To this day, we have the same struggle with identifying the church with current secular thought and systems.

Scripture gives us the Gospel to change our lives and re-form us into Christ followers. We cannot change the world for the better until we are transformed into people who see the world differently – the way God wants us to see it.

“We utterly trivialize this profound biblical teaching if we associate our peculiar holiness with a pet list of religious taboos (such as smoking, drinking, dancing, gambling, and so on). No, the holiness the New Testament is concerned with is centered on being Christlike, living in outrageous, self-sacrificial love. If you make this your life aspiration, you will certainly be peculiar – about as peculiar as a Messiah dying on a cursed tree! You will be a ‘resident alien.’” [7]

The greatest event in the world’s history is the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth. It is through faith and an understanding of the significance of this event that we show others a different world. We don’t go into the world to change it. We go into the world to show the world how each person should and can change.

Let’s go back to Theodosius I. He declared Christianity to be the official state religion. From that time on, virtually everyone claimed to be Christian. Since then, many nation/states and all their citizens have been declared Christians. We still hear the claim that the United States is a Christian nation. Therefore,

“If the world is basically Christian, then one need not worry about the church. Conversion, detoxification, and transformation are not needed. All that is needed is a slight change of mind, an inner change of heart, a few new insights.” (p. 29)

We know this is not the case. In our current environment, Christianity is not the dominant culture. We have become the resident alien colony. Prior to His crucifixion, Jesus prayed to God the Father for us.

“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:14-21, ESV)

Our author summarizes their goal for this book thusly. This also applies to our study.

“Our aim is to challenge those assumptions and to show what a marvelous opportunity awaits those pastors and laity who sense what an adventure it is to be the church. People who reside here and now, but who live here as aliens, people who know that, while we live here, ‘our commonwealth is in heaven.’” (p. 29)

[1] Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2005, p. 71.

[2] Brett McCracken, Uncomfortable, Crossway, Wheaton, 2017.

[3] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Moralistic Therapeutic Deism –- The New American Religion, The Christian Post, 18 April 2005. https://www.christianpost.com/news/moralistic-therapeutic-deism-the-new-american-religion.html

[4] Ibid.

[5] Matthias von Hellfeld, Christianity Becomes the Religion of the Roman Empire – February 27, 380, Deutsche Welle, 16 November 2009. https://www.dw.com/en/christianity-becomes-the-religion-of-the-roman-empire-february-27-380/a-4602728

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2005, p. 71.

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