If one reads the lists of vices that are the mark of an unbelieving, God-rejecting culture (as in Romans 1:29-31) or are a sign of the decadent last days (2 Tim. 3:1-5), one gets a pretty good picture of contemporary culture. While there are other such lists found in Scripture (e.g., Gal. 5:19-21), these two give us a pretty good picture of where we are at.
Indeed, both lists feature around 20 vices (21 in Romans, 19 in 2 Timothy) which quite accurately characterise unrepentant sinners, and a culture which has rejected Christ and has declared, “We will not have this man to rule over us”.
Commenting on the list found in Romans, James Montgomery Boice says this: “To study a list like this does not mean that every individual is equally guilty of each vice or that there have not been periods of history when they have been either more or less prominent. But, at best, these are all just below the surface of our respectability, and they quickly become apparent whenever you cross our sinful human nature or scratch the surface.”
Or as John Murray says, “as we scan the whole list, we cannot but be impressed with the apostle’s insight into the depravity of human nature as apostatized from God, the severity of his assessment of these moral conditions, and the breath of his knowledge respecting the concrete ways in which human depravity came to expression.”
John Stott says this of the Timothy list: “All this unsocial, antisocial behaviour … is the inevitable consequence of a godless self-centredness.” Indeed, fixation on self is the bottom line of all this evil. When self becomes god, there is no end to depravity and evil.
In fact, one of the common features of such lists is the predominance of hedonistic, sensual, bestial sins. The flesh is being catered to in a major way, and anything that pleases the senses and makes us feel good is indulged in without limit or constraint.
Thus people have become ‘lovers of self,’ ‘lovers of pleasure,’ and so on. They engage in ‘depravity’ and even ‘invent ways of doing evil’. Sensualism, sensuality and hedonism become the defining features of a culture intent on rejecting all divine restraints, and devoted to unbridled lusts and self-indulgence.
The biblical writers are not alone in noting this downward spiral. Concerned commentators have also analysed these worrying trends. For example, in 1996 Harold O.J. Brown wrote a valuable volume called The Sensate Culture. In it he described contemporary culture’s insistence on worshipping the fleshly, the sensual, and the material.
He draws heavily upon the work of the Russian-born sociologist Pitirim Sorokin who taught at Harvard University for many years. He especially draws upon his 1941 volume, The Crisis of Our Age, and his 1956 book, The American Sex Revolution.
Brown notes that Sorokin described societies as moving through three phases. The first is the ideational, in which the emphasis is on spiritual truth and values. The last is the sensate, in which interest lies only in the material and the sensual.
Between these two is the idealistic, which contains elements of each of the other two. Sorokin – and Brown – make the case that we in the West are now well and truly in the sensate stage. “It seeks the imposing, the impressive, the voluptuous; it encourages self-indulgence.”
Brown continues, “Sensate culture and sensate art go beyond simple materialism in that materialism merely defines matter as the only reality; the sensate mentality becomes enthusiastic about it. Western culture, as we shall show, is in the last stages of the sensate phase, or, to use Sorokin’s expression, it is a late, degenerate sensate culture.”
He offers this warning: “Sadly, as the experience of ancient Rome showed and as modern sensate cultures are again coming to see, a culture cannot long endure when there are no higher standards for human behaviour than the appetites and tastes of the moment.”
Both Brown and Sorokin were Christians, so the picture is not totally bleak. As Brown says, “On the one hand, we need to understand the full extent of the crisis in which we find ourselves, and not make the mistake of trivializing it, as though it could be resolved by making a few changes here and there. . . . If we do recognize the seriousness, we will wear ourselves out with adjustments and cosmetic changes, thereby making the disaster unavoidable.
“On the other hand, we must not make the mistake of seeing the present crisis as hopeless and therefore fail to make the kind of changes that could save us from a fiery ordeal.” Indeed, what can we learn from history here? Brown offers the following insights and questions:
“Modern sensate Western culture has not been in existence quite as long as the sensate culture of ancient Rome was before the impact of Christianity caused its great shift, but things move faster now. May we expect the kind of constructive renewal that created medieval Christian civilization out of the ruins of pagan Rome and the barbarian invasions? And if so, where will it come from? Does Western Christian Civilization have the resources to renew itself, or has it entered a late, degenerate phase from which it cannot recover?”
I find these questions to be not only extremely incisive, but vitally important for the church to grapple with today. Can we withstand the sensate invasion, or have we in fact become too much a part of the problem? One time radical and Black Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver rightly stated in the 60s, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem”.
My very great fear is that so much of the church today seems more a part of the problem than part of the solution. The sensate culture has invaded the churches big time, and it seems that we are losing the war time and time again. There are numerous signs of this to choose from.
Let me offer just one minor, but representative, example. A while ago I spoke at a public meeting of believers on biblical worldview matters, and a number of people signed up to be part of my work in Christian activism. A week or two later one gal wrote back saying she wanted to end her involvement.
I replied and said yes I could do that, but pointed out that she was the one who signed up, and only just recently. She replied, ‘yeah, I was caught up in the emotion of the moment’ or words to that effect. I was dumbfounded. I did not reply again, but what I could easily have said was this:
“Since when does a Christian life run on feelings or emotions? What do your passing emotions have to do with anything in the Christian life? Not just signing up to join a cause, but praying, reading God’s word, worshipping, doing what is right in God’s eyes… All this is an act of the will, not the stuff of mere feelings.”
The problem is, we have an entire generation of believers who more or less live their Christian life this way. Instead of doing what is right simply because it is right, they run their lives based on their emotions at the moment; their fleeting feelings. They are sensate, in other words, instead of spiritual.
But there are many more worrying indicators of the church’s embrace of the sensate culture than just this. For example, Christian researcher George Barna has shown over and over how modern evangelical churches are basically just as worldly, sensate and carnal as the surrounding culture.
His research shows that the churches are by and large filled with the same vice lists that we find in the secular culture: pornography addiction, abortion, homosexuality, easy divorce, greed, materialism, consumerism, and so on. Instead of resisting the surrounding sensate culture, and turning it around, it seems that the church is the one which has been influenced by it.
Brown asks whether the Western church has the resources, inclination and desire to turn things around, or whether it will fatally succumb to the sensate culture. To be honest, I do not know the answer to that one. It may well be that the church in the West will self-destruct, devoted as it is to self, sensuality, and sin.
But even if it does self-implode, God is not finished with planet earth. He is actively moving in the developing world, with church growth making leaps and bounds in Asia, Africa and Latin America. If the Western church will not get the job done, and fight the good fight, then God is quite capable of raising up for himself a people who will get the job done.
The church in the West is quickly forfeiting its role in God’s greater redemptive purposes. If that is the case, God can easily move off shore and continue his work of establishing his Kingdom. And that he is doing. I for one, however, would like to see the Western church get its act together, and join God in the great end-time harvest.
Whether we do or not is entirely up to us. But “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).