Society and Culture: Defining Our Age

It's interesting to notice that Paul's shadow falls over much of the New Testament's content. The greater part of Luke's history of the early church is Paul's own history. Then there are his letters to various churches and individuals. Considered together, Paul's writings provide us with far reaching principles for understanding what is happening in this 21st-century world.

That may seem like an extraordinary claim. What could a 1st century scholar have to say of any significance to a world so utterly different than his own? It is what we have in common with our fellow human beings of 2000 years ago that gives the clue. Technologies change but human nature does not.

There is certainly truth in Solomon's statement that there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Jeremiah comments that the heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). These and other perceptive principles teach us to look at the world with a healthy skepticism. What then can we find to help us from the writings of Paul?

In a second letter to his younger assistant, Timothy, Paul delivers a list of 19 characteristics that we can expect to find as this age of man comes to a close. They are echoed in other of Paul's writings - in the letter to the Romans for example and in his first letter to Timothy - but here they are compacted into one-line or one word descriptions that strike at the heart of our contemporary difficulties. Since Paul wrote the following, circumstances have only deteriorated:

"But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!" (2 Timothy 3:1-5).

In analyzing each day's news do we not find obvious examples of the truth of Paul's predictions? Is it possible to deny the applicability of his description to the perilous times we are experiencing? Does his list not have the ring of truth? Consider the damaging impact on the social fabric of men who are "lovers of themselves."

A few years ago the late Christopher Lasch wrote a scathing criticism of our times, titled, "The Culture of Narcissism." In it he detailed the obsessions of a self-centered culture. When selfishness rules our lives there is nothing for the next generation but degeneration. Looking at today's news through this prism we see that only by a supreme spiritual effort can our self-absorbed world survive.

Selfishness is often expressed in the desire for money. The apostle Paul drew Timothy's attention to an important truth when he wrote in a separate letter: "For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows" (1 Timothy 6:7-10). The pursuit of materialism does not satisfy in the end. Yet it is a hallmark of these times.

Boastfulness and pride or arrogance are typical of so many. People without a spiritual center will fill the void by drawing attention to the self. Their focus is egocentric because they are unaware of others except as commodities to be used. To these characteristics Paul attaches a third, "blasphemous" or as the Greek here indicates, "abusive."  Does not abuse overshadow the relationships of so many today? They battle the scars of an abusive past; they live within the prison of present day physical and mental cruelty.

A number of characteristics follow that demonstrate the absence of a particular quality. The Bible teaches that a successful society has its children in appropriate control. Children are taught to be obedient to imperfect parents. Paul tells us that a marker of the final age is disobedience to parents. Here is a descriptor of our times that cannot be denied. It is not surprisingly linked with a string of other failings, including the sin of ingratitude, the lack of holiness, the loss of everyday love and concern, and the inability to forgive others.

All of these failings are tied to a society that has lost touch with its essential humanity. Paul's next term is translated elsewhere in the Bible as "devil," but here as "slanderer." The act of slandering the reputation of another is to lie and deceive about our neighbor. It is a common activity of Satan himself, who in the book of Job is the adversary of man and also his accuser. An accusative attitude typifies this age.

A society that has lost its capacity for self-control will only get worse. The Bible is clear that we humans have the responsibility to control our passions and desires. Paul recognized that a degenerating people would progressively lack the power to say no. They would also behave in an uncivilized way, brutally, and have disdain for those who would uphold good behavior. 

Paul turns his attention to the active involvement of a derailed society in betrayal of trust and headstrong or rash actions. Betrayal is all too common a human experience. Husband betrays wife, and wife husband, employer-employee relationships suffer, children and parents destroy their ties. And rash, ill-considered actions typify so much of what we read about and see.

The final three indicators of an age that is moving to a climax include haughtiness or conceit, loving pleasure above God and displaying hypocrisy in relation to God. Surely the lack of humility present in a godless time prevails. The desire for endless self-gratification has accelerated in the past 30 years. And yet there is the popular notion that more people are somehow in pursuit of the spiritual. Paul is unequivocal that it is possible to have a form of godliness, but no substance. Modern man has achieved the triumph of image over reality. We are not spirit-led in any real sense. We are victims of our own excess.Seeing and reading the daily news with this Pauline filter in place convinces us that there is a degradation of the human spirit in progress. Its course is not inevitable at the individual level. You and I can choose to act otherwise. As Paul said in conclusion: "From such people turn away!"

What is the value of these 19 points from an initially private letter to a colleague 2000 years ago? Much, if we are prepared to take on board Paul's significant and life-saving advice. We must remove our minds far from these 19 characteristics. As we are continuing to see, the analysis of social conditions from the Biblical and prophetic perspective provides realism and hope.

David Hulme

Tags: society and culture; social issues