Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview

J. Mark Bertrand Articles

Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview
By Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew
224 p
Baker (November 2008)

One of the ironies in the way evangelicals have appropriated the postmodern turn is that worldview thinking, which if anything seems to have anticipated the sea change and provided useful tools for engaging and adapting, has come to be seen as a relic of discredited modernity.

Perhaps it's no surprise. The average Sunday School teacher of not too long ago, tasked with introducing his sleepy flock to the intricacies of the biblical worldview, tended to reduce the concept to a handful of fundamental (and only somewhat interrelated truth claims), ideas best expressed in bullet points, perhaps not explicit in Scripture but certainly implied, which demanded from the faithful absolute adherence.

Hand in hand with this intellectual checklist went a somewhat naive understanding of the way beliefs are formed: students were presented with a buffet line of -isms (each distilled to its own unstated assumptions), and invited after due diligence to embrace the most sensible option. As if the gospel were a matter solely of mental assent, an invitation to exchange one's philosophy.

The old approach was good as far as it went, but you could never escape the feeling that something important was being left out. Too many books have been written about worldview thinking, or not nearly enough--it all depends on your perspective. The simplistic, intellectualized tomes expounding the popular Sunday School conception have been done to death. Thankfully, a new kind of worldview thinking is afoot, exemplified in Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew's Living at the Crossroads.

To call the approach new is a misnomer, since its power derives in part from reconnecting with the best of the old--a return ad fontes, recovering nuances in the source texts. As the worldview concept gained widespread popularity, it was dumbed down. Living at the Crossroads puts flesh back on the bones, not only returning to core thinkers like Orr and Kuyper, but by working up from the biblical narrative itself.

The new approach feels very new in at least one sense, however: instead of presenting the Christian worldview as an abstract of principles demanding assent, it offers the biblical story as an encompassing narrative, a story within which we find our individual stories, eliciting not just adherence but profound identification. The new approach isn't antithetical to the old--the truth claims remain. But it is more fully voiced. The old approach was mono, the new is stereo. And if anything, it's even more demanding (albeit more irenic in its demands). The development of a Christian worldview is seen, not as an end in itself, but as a precondition for faithful mission.

According to Goheen and Bartholomew, Christians now find themselves at the intersection of two narratives: the biblical story, with its familiar trajectory of creation, fall, and redemption, and the Western story, an account of modern or postmodern humanism. Both are jealous narratives, insisting on certain interpretations of the whole of life, and as people at the crossroads, we live in a state of tension:

"As those who have embraced the gospel, we are members of a community that believes the Bible to be the true story of the world. But as participating and living members of the cultural community, we are also part of the other story that has been shaping Western culture for a very long time. We cannot simply opt out of the surrounding culture: our lives are woven into its institutions, customs, language, relationships, and social patterns. Our embodying of the kingdom of God must take cultural shape in our own particular time and place. So we find ourselves at the crossroads, where we live as part of two communities, in two stories each largely incompatible with the other, but both of which claim to be true--and claim the whole of our lives." (p. 8)

Worldviews arise from our "grand stories," which are not just individual but communal. In our defining narratives, we discover foundational assumptions about the world, answers to key questions about the nature of reality. Individuals and communities are given purpose and direction by these beliefs--even nations are under their sway--and yet the beliefs themselves are often unacknowledged and therefore unexamined.

How can we become aware of our own assumptions? By doing three things: "(1) giving summary expression to the grand story; (2) lifting out the fundamental beliefs of that story; (3) articulating and explicating those beliefs. This is what worldview reflection is concerned to do" (p. 26). Goheen and Bartholomew apply this formula to their two converging narratives, the biblical story and the Western story.

The biblical story begins, of course, with God, who brought forth a good creation, including humankind, which bears his image. Evil is not essential to creation--there is no "cosmic balance" between light and dark--but is a corruption that follows from human disobedience. In other words: Sin, which redirects the God-given structure of creation but does not abolish it. The gospel represents God's progressive, comprehensive work of rehabilitation, grace restoring nature. Christ announces the coming of a kingdom whose full realization we now anticipate.

This narrative has influenced the Western story, but not exclusively. The various syntheses of the gospel and classical humanism that shaped the medieval world began to unravel during the Scientific Revolution, and were finally severed in the Enlightenment period, after which humanism sought to distance itself farther and farther from the Christian story. Modernity killed God off, enthroning man in the vacuum, relegating religious opinions to the private sphere.

But now, as confidence in modernity's power to deliver on its promises subsides, we are compelled to ask N. T. Wright's question: "What time is it in our culture?" Searching for answers, Goheen and Bartholomew hit on four trends: (1) postmodernity, which embodies a critique of epistemology that puts "irrational" topics like religion back on the table, but while maintaining modernity's death-grip on human autonomy; (2) consumerism and globalization, the reductio ad absurdum of liberal individualism; (3) the renascence of Christianity in the southern hemisphere, calling the compromised north to greater orthodoxy; and (4) the resurgence of Islam, "a prophetic challenge to Christians to recover the full dimensions of their faith" (p. 124).

Broad-brush intellectual histories necessarily suffer from a reductive tendency. But Living at the Crossroads imbues these summaries with an expansive quality, covering much ground in a handful of pages without giving the subject short shrift.

If the book's first seven chapters situate us at the crossroads, the final two suggest ways of living there. Since withdrawal from culture isn't an option, the question becomes how to engage it. Essential to the project is an understanding of the collision of our two stories as a "missionary encounter." We participate in our culture--the gospel is always situated and contextualized in a particular cultural setting--but we do so self-consciously, critically:

"In whatever we examine critically we will discover something of God's good creational structure and also evidence of how it has been deformed by sin. A faithful embodiment of the gospel in our own cultural settings demands that we discern between the creational structure and design in all things and the religious misdirection and rebellion that pervert God's good world" (p. 136).

In addition to the creational design and its misdirection through cultural idolatry, we must discern "healing potential," the opportunities we have in whatever station we find ourselves in to redirect structures toward the good. Goheen and Bartholomew offer specific glimpses of these potentials in a variety of callings: business, politics, sports and competition, creativity and art, scholarship, education.

Like The Drama of Scripture, Goheen and Bartholomew's earlier collaboration, Living at the Crossroads is the sort of book you begin recommending before you've finished the first chapter. Drum-tight, comprehensive, and wonderfully suggestive, it will be invaluable as much to teachers of worldview thinking as their students.

J. Mark Bertrand is the author of Rethinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in This World (Crossway, 2007). His novel The Suicide Cop will be published by Bethany House in 2010. He serves on the faculty of Worldview Academy, and hosts, a site dedicated to "the physical form of the Good Book."