Christians should listen to the Word of God, of course, in the sense of heeding it, following it, and taking it in. Listening to the competing voices of the world in that way can get us into trouble. But there is another sense in which we do need to listen to what the world is saying. Paying attention can help us avoid the world’s errors and can make us more effective witnesses and evangelists.
The Bible commends King David’s allies from the tribe of Issachar, “men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (I Chron. 12:32). These men did not advocate going along with the times, as the false prophets of Israel’s apostasy would later do. Rather, the men of Issachar understood the times—including, doubtless, the allure of Canaanite idolatry in those days—an understanding that helped keep Israel faithful.
An important reason for listening to the world is to recognize false philosophies and worldviews, lest they infect our Christian faith. For example, one of the governing assumptions of the world today is progressivism. This view takes for granted that what is “new” is always better than what is “old.” Thus, progressive educators tend to cut out or attack our heritage of old books and old ideas in favor of “new ideas,” “the latest developments,” and “cutting-edge thinking.”
Such language appeals to most of us, since we are, like it or not, denizens of our culture. But among the old ideas progressivism has no use for is Christianity, and the belief in progress—that things are getting better and better over against the “darkness” of the past—is one of the main vehicles for excising Christianity from society.
If we listen carefully to progressivists, we will note the syndrome that the Apostle Paul faced in the intellectual center of Athens: “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). We will also see the marks of Darwinism, the notion that we are ever evolving to a higher level.
Believers, having considered the source, then notice the fallacies. Progress in science and technology is real, but it builds on past truths without rejecting them. Computers don’t have to be re-invented in order to keep getting better; innovations expand what they already do. Knowledge accumulates, so it can increase. Scientists and engineers know this, but artists, authors, and philosophers keep trying to start over from ground zero in the humanities. Thus, they don’t really progress—they become primitive.
The point is this: Christians—who have no patience with Darwinistic materialism—often sound as progressive as the most ardent evolutionist. They look for “new” theologies, “new” ways of worship, and “new” music, being quite willing to toss out their entire “old-fashioned” Christian heritage. Such thinking comes from a failure to “understand the times” in which we live.
Pragmatism is another non-Christian philosophy that has found its way into the church. Since we can never know what is true or good, according to pragmatist philosophers, we should simply do “what works,” conceived of in material terms. This is an important strain of American philosophy, from the modernist John Dewey with his atheism and socialism to the postmodernist Richard Rorty with his relativism and leftist politics. Few Christians would agree with these philosophers if they listened to them, but simplified pragmatism can be heard constantly in church committee meetings, church-growth seminars, and books for pastors. “What works”—to increase church attendance, attract non-Christians, bring in more money, or achieve another goal—can trump all theological, historical, and biblical considerations.
Another reason to listen carefully to the world is given in Scripture: “If one gives an answer before he hears,” says Solomon, “it is his folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13). In evangelizing nonbelievers, we need to “hear” them so that the answers we give as Christians will address their questions and respond to issues they are struggling with.
In many conversations, Christians and non-Christians talk past each other. The Christian may be running through an evangelism spiel from memory, while the person being witnessed to is trying to understand why God let his mom die of cancer. The non-Christian may start a political argument, while the Christian is raising spiritual issues. In apologetics, we often give a rational argument for Christianity to postmodernists who reject reason. Often the church addresses issues only after the culture has moved on. Churches trying to reach young people turn to folk songs and pop music when their young people scorn those styles in favor of rock and rap.
By first listening to those we are trying to reach, we can avoid giving pat, canned, impersonal answers. Instead, we can address them personally, authentically, and soul to soul. If they sense we are truly listening to them, they may grant us a hearing. They will feel that we have earned the right to be heard.
We can listen superficially—hearing their vile, violent music just to condemn it and them—or we can listen more deeply and notice why this music is so angry. As Mary Eberstadt has shown, most of it is about being abandoned, especially by a father. By the same token, the person struggling with his mother’s death is not asking for just an abstract treatise in theodicy (a defense of God’s goodness and power given the existence of evil); rather, this can become the occasion of acquainting him with Jesus who Himself died, taking on all death—including His mother’s—and defeating it through His resurrection. Pragmatists who are impatient with abstraction can be pointed to the God who became flesh. We can agree with the relativist that the world alone gives no basis for universal truth but then introduce him to the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
If we listen carefully to the world and to those trapped in the world, with its futility and sin, we can hear the cry of the lost behind the cacophony of false ideas and twisted worldviews. That can awaken our empathy and compassion in such a way that we can effectively do what the Apostle calls for: “Always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15).