Spotlight Interview: Owen Strachan & Warren Cole Smith on Trends to Watch in 2017January 6, 2017
I thought it would be fun this week to have that conversation with some folks who I greatly respect and who are not only watching what is happening in the world and here in the United States in terms of cultural trends and stories that are taking place across the country.
To start us off in this conversation today we have Owen Strachan, the Director for the Center of Public Theology at Midwestern Seminary, and Warren Cole Smith, the Vice President for mission advancement for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
Listen to the discussion here:
Carmen: All right. You did a really great podcast kind of a roundup of the issues that you think that we need to be watching in 2017. Let’s just start off with the first one which are gender identity issues. I made my little list this morning. Like beyond bathroom signage and whether or not the Boy Scouts can define only boy members and whether or not the women’s hockey league can actually restrict its players to women only. We got these conversations going on now in the United States in virtually every sphere. Talk with us about this gender identity issue as one of the trends you see us needing to face on 2017.
Owen Strachan: Yeah, it’s really the trend that is popping up all over the place. You can’t really keep your finger on it because every time you refresh your browser there are new headlines. You think about National Geographic, for example, having a major story in recent days on transgender children and their families. This is become something that has jumped from an exotic story to now a pretty regular one.
What we have to recognize as believers is that we have a major stake in this conversation. The church hasn’t always talked a whole lot about what it means to be a man or what it means to be a women. These matters have kind of been treated as third rail matters, meaning you don’t really touch them from the pulpit. As a result, many Christians have learned basically look to the culture for their teaching on the sexes, on gender identity. We have to recognize though that in these very ultra-modern times we need ancient wisdom.
We need to go back to Genesis 2 and we need to see that when the latest transgender matter pops up, whether it’s far away or whether it’s in our community, God has created men to be men and women to be women and what it means to be a Christian man or a Christian woman powered by the gospel of Jesus Christ is that we still continue to image God as a man or woman to his glory.
This means then that we’re going to be in the teeth of the cultural lot, Carmen, because as I say, there’s all sorts of matters that are before us that conflict with the Christian worldview. We have to give an answer to these things. We can’t fail to speak. We have to speak up on these matters.
Warren, I’d love for you to respond to that and reflect on that. Owen is highlighting the issues that we’re facing in terms of gender identity and gender issues. He’s talking about the need for Christians to have a distinctively Christian worldview. Can you just join us in that conversation?
Warren Cole Smith: Yeah, absolutely. First of all, it’s an honor to be on with you and with Owen because I’ve long respected his work. I think he’s absolutely right about gender identity. The sexual orientation/gender identity, so called SOGI laws, have been popping up all around the country. This is the new front in a multi-front of war. I hate to call it a war because it conjures up images that none of us like to think about or deal with but that’s unfortunately what it has become in many ways
Owen is also right whenever he says that this is a core issue for the gospel. I think he was wise to say let’s go back to Genesis to talk about this issue. That God created us male and female. The gay activists and secularists and others that do not share our Christian worldview are fond of saying that the Bible doesn’t have much to say about this issue, that there are only a few, what they call Clobber verses in Leviticus, in Romans, and elsewhere.
What Owen has highlighted for us is that this understanding of who we are as human beings in relationship to God is woven throughout scripture through Genesis to Revelations. Genesis starts with male and female. Jesus in the gospels affirmed the marriage relationship by turning water into wine at the marriage of Cana and Galilee. His first miracle. It was a very public way of affirming of this Old Testament understanding of humanity. And in Revelations. The Bible concludes in this age ends with a marriage, the wedding feast of Christ the groom to his bridge the church.
The metaphor of marriage and this idea of being created male and female, both in God’s image, is so central to the scripture and to a Christian understanding of the world that if we allow that understanding to be compromised in our walls and in our culture we are doing real violence to the gospel itself.
Carmen: Folks, that’s Warren Cole Smith. He and I are on today with Owen Strachan and the three of us are talking about the trends that we see before us as Christians in the new year, in this year 2017, and we’ve been talking about this I think probably the issue that none of us is going to be help every single day in one way or another confronting this particular issue.
It’s because it’s an issue of identity. When you do see these sexual orientation/gender identity laws, when you hear these conversations taking place, let’s say, on the front cover of National Geographic or right now … Let’s see what I got in front of me right now. If you live in Kansas the University of Kansas library today is handing out pens that allow students to self-identity with their preferred pronouns so that others in the library will know how to address them. If you are a person who follows stories related to the Boy Scouts you know that the Boy Scouts are under fire again in relationship to a child who self-identifies as transgender and their attempt to keep the Boy Scouts for boys.
This is going to be an issue that you and I, as Christians, are going to need to be very effectively equipped to deal with. Not just in this year but in the years to come. There is deep confusion on the subject of identity. As Christians, we’ve got to be equipped scripturally not just to defend this position but to do so in a way that draws people deeply into a conversation about themselves. This isn’t just about us making a stand in culture and saying, “Hey, this is where we stand and this is what the Bible says.” It’s about inviting people out of the confusion in which they are currently living to actually engage the truth about themselves, that they are created in the image of God, and we want to help people see that in this new year.
All right, gentlemen, let’s turn from there to religious liberty. Warren, I’ll just jump back with you on this question and then Owen we’ll turn it to you. Warren, religious liberty and what do you see on the forefront of conversation in the coming year, particularly here in the United States?
Warren Cole Smith: Well, I think it’s important to realize that the SOGI laws that we’ve been talking about are really a … I don’t want to say a subset necessarily but a part of this larger question of religious liberty. I think that one of the ways that this conversation is going to get framed, and we’ve already seen it framed this way in the last election, was the idea of freedom of religion or religious liberty versus freedom of worship.
You would hear, for example, Hillary Clinton talking a great deal in the last political cycle about freedom of worship, that she did not want to inhibit freedom of worship. That’s in some ways a code so we’re saying, “What you do on Sunday morning in the confines of your church during that hour of worship is fine. You can do whatever you want. Just don’t take your faith into the public square. Don’t take your faith into your vocation. Don’t take your faith into your neighborhood.”
When you hear people talking about freedom of worship just understand that they are really not talking about the religious liberty in the sense in which it has historically been understood and in the sense that it was codified for us in the first Amendment of the Constitution. You will often hear people say that religious liberty is the first freedom. It’s one of several freedoms mentioned in the First Amendment but it is a linchpin, a cornerstone there. I know Owen has done a great deal of great work on this question as well. I think that religious liberty question is going to continue to be a vital one in the year ahead.
Carmen: All right, Owen. Jumping to you. Beyond those threats to religious liberty that we might be experiencing in terms of the showdown between the perceived rights of religious-minded people and those who are in sexual anarchy, what are maybe some of the other religious liberty trends and stories that you’re expecting us to be talking about this year?
Owen Strachan: Well, there’s a recognition here that everybody is fine with a tiny little Jesus who only comes out in your private prayer closet and says nice things to you. The issue is whether we are allowed to talk about Jesus and whether Jesus in point of fact is allowed to claim our lives in a broader sense and be spoken of in the American public square.
We’ve talked some in past days about the Christmas wars. Christmas is now over but it was very interesting to me to interact with people around Christmas and see whether they would say Merry Christmas to me or Happy Holidays. Listen, the Christmas wars thing can be overblown. Let that be said. It was a great litmus test for us in 2016, now ’17, to think through whether it’s okay for religious groups to bring their truth claims into the public square or whether the public square is only supposed to be amenable to religious groups who sheer their truth claims of religion.
This is a story that is not going to go away in any sense of form. I think the real issue that we face in the year ahead and the years ahead, you an Warren have both already touched on it, it’s this, is there some kind of American dogma, body of thought, that is supposed to norm everybody. Absolutely everybody and everybody must descent to it to be an American citizen and to function in the society. Or does America fundamentally welcome everybody who will live peaceably in this country regardless of their perspective or viewpoint?
In the past, America has proved very amenable, very welcoming to people of different viewpoints. In fact, you could really say that America, as a society, though far from perfect, has done much more to allow room for disagreement in its society than basically just about any other society we can think of in history. Just about.
Now there’s this question of whether we have to submit to a kind of secularist, Orthodoxy in order to be a productive citizen. One area we’re going to see continued challenges on relative to this question is other religious groups. Not just Christian but are we going to carve out space, for example, for Muslims in American public life. This is a tricky question because there is some connection in parts of Islam, at least, to terrorism but Christians, at the very least, must recognize that we have a stake in being a voice for other religious groups when religious liberty is questioned. This is not just a matter, in other words, of preference. We’d love to worship Jesus in our private little prayer closet. This is a matter of survival and thriving for us and many others.
Warren Cole Smith: What Owen just said hit such a deep resonant thread with me that I just wanted to agree with it. That number one this idea of religious liberty I would argue is a deeply Christian idea. My mentor and the namesake of the Colson Center where I work, Chuck Colson, was fond to say, “Christians do not impose. We propose.” This idea of liberty, especially religious liberty, is one that is so deeply at the heart of scriptural truth and the truth of the gospel itself that it is ironic.
That’s the other part of this I want to say is it is ironic that it is, as Owen suggested, Christians who are the ones that are experiencing some of the push back. In other words, we’re the ones that I would argue gave birth to the idea of religious liberty and we are the ones that, at least in this country and in other countries around the world as well, are being sort of pushed out of the public square. That’s number one.
The second point that I would make that is consistent with what Owen just said I think what that requires of us as Christians however is that we must do what Owen said. We can’t just defend the religious liberty of Christians. We’ve got to defend the religious liberty of Muslims and Zoroastrians and our Baha’i neighbors and whatever else we might happen to encounter. That the religious liberty of one is intimately related to the religious liberty of all and I think as Christians we need to be on the forefront of that fight.
I think that’s one of the ways, one of the special opportunities that we’re going to have in the year ahead, and maybe throughout the century, to love our neighbors is to come to their aid, even when our interests personally are not necessarily affected.
Carmen: Let me reset the conversation a little bit for our listeners so they know whose voices they are hearing. Friends, this is the Reconnect and I am your host Carmen LaBerge. With us today the voice you were just hearing is Warren Cole Smith. He’s the vice president of Mission Advancement for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. You can follow Warren on Twitter at Warren Cole Smith.
I also resonated deeply Owen with what you said and then Warren what you were reflecting back. I do think that when people, including myself, when we hear folks refer to American values and then we hear them say in reference to another group of people who are presenting things differently or are voting differently or are articulating a different position, those are not American values. I’m saying to myself, “Well, those are Americans who are espousing those values.” What are we saying when we hear this phrase, “Those are our values”? What we’re hearing is whatever partisan position it is that has the microphone at the time asserting it’s set of values as the dominant values in the culture.
I think what I hear you guys saying is there was a point in history when no matter what your viewpoint was you could bring that idea into the public square and it could sort of duke it out with the other ideas of the day and maybe the best idea won and maybe the best idea didn’t win but there was an idea that emerged and other people were allowed to continue to disagree with that and there wasn’t this sense that everyone must capitulate to whatever the dominant idea is of the day.
Yet today, what I think we’re experiencing as Christians is there’s this dominant idea out there, particularly in relationship to sexual ethics. That it doesn’t matter if you have a Biblical worldview. You must capitulate to the dominant idea out there, which is that any variety of sexual anarchy is okay because it’s preferred by the individual who espouses it.
I think that’s going to be a real struggle for Christians to continue to be distinctively Christian, articulate the truth of the gospel, the unchanging position of God revealed in the scriptures on these matters, and yet to do so in a way that allows us to continue in the conversation in the public square. I don’t know about you but I feel like this viewpoint is being pressed further to the margins.
I know you can’t both respond to that at the same time. It does get us to the conversation about the role of the church and politics. I’m going to let Owen pick up there.
Owen Strachan: Yeah, let me just chime in on what you were saying and say this. We are in something of a festival of backlash against political correctness right now. Many of us have been unsettled by recent political discourse, comments that different presidential candidates have made about one another or about private citizens. There has been all number of discomfiting things that have happened in the American public in the recent past.
Here is something with that said that we can also note, political correctness has been sweeping over this country for decades. It has been remaking every institution of public life. Colleges and universities at the secular level are basically little islands of secularism now and they are having a profound influence on this country. What we have seen beyond America in terms of Brexit and now in terms of this recent election is a massive kickback, massive, against political correctness.
Some of the views that you were just talking about that we’ve been discussing today are coming in for fire. I think it’s actually a pretty healthy moment for America. There’s all sorts of ways this could break and not all of them are good, to be very clear. As the church, in the public square, we’ve got to just recognize people’s minds right now, at least in terms of the last, I don’t know, 15, 20 years are uniquely open to outside ideas, to the minority perspective.
The church has an opportunity I think to surf this populist wave and help people see that there is something better than political correctness and also that there’s something better than just reacting to political correctness. We have a body of faith and doctrine that has withstood the test of time. The church is an anvil that can withstand many hammers and it has.
This is an opportunity for the church to speak up in the public square, to make it’s case, and also to try and lure some folks by the power of the spirit hopefully who are very much disaffiliated and disenchanted by this kind of specter of public correctness that has overtaken this country. We have an opportunity to show that we are an alien people who nonetheless preach the true culture: the culture of Jesus Christ.
There’s a profound opportunity here, even as America, and even the west more broadly. It’s very much unsettled right now. I think we can exploit that unsettled-ness.
Carmen: Warren, can you tell us what trends we ought to be watching globally as well?
Warren Cole Smith: Well, I would say that this religious liberty question is one that is not just limited to the United States but it’s one that we’re seeing all around the world. Last year, probably more Christians were killed, martyred, than at any other time in recent history. I think that this religious liberty question is not just one for America but one for the world.
I also think that Owen mentioned Brexit. I think that we’re going to see a little bit more of that backlash in the year ahead. I just want to, in closing, reiterate what Owen said that I think this is a really wonderful time for Christians to be alive. Aside from the fact that God in his sovereignty put us here and that we have a responsibility to serve our neighbors in this moment. I think that as Christians, as people of hope, that we should be just excited about the opportunities that this cultural moment is presenting to us. Keeping always in mind that this cultural moment is just part of a bigger story and that we have an opportunity to be a part of that bigger story for God’s glory.
Carmen: Amen. That’s all we got time for, guys. I hope we can do it again. That was Warren Cole Smith. He is with the Colson Center. Also today we had Owen Strachan, director for the Center of Public Theology at Midwestern Seminary.
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