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In Search of a Value Scale


by Peter Rowan

'How many changes will the journey involve?' This was the key criterion for deciding which form of transport to take during a recent visit to England. How many times would I have to change from one train to another, switch platforms and take the Underground? In the end, the thought of all the necessary changes was enough to put me on a coach, with no changes but for a few extra pounds. I may have escaped it on that occasion, but life is increasingly characterised by change. The global context is one of rapid change, much of it unpredictable, uncontrollable and unsettling. But while it may be challenging and often risky, change can play an important part in our spiritual growth and in our mission as the people of God. There are many examples of this in the Bible. One particular example from the Old Testament is Deuteronomy - a book for times of movement and change.

The people of Israel are at a crucial stage in their history. Forty years after the exodus, and after a generation of them had wandered in the desert, the multitude stands on the boundary of the promised land. And at this key time Moses preaches to the people and encourages them not to waste the opportunity to move on with God (1:6; 2:3). Of course, the people of God have always been a pilgrim people, on the move with God. But at certain times we do become more aware of a boundary that must be crossed, a step that must be taken , a new phase in our family or church life that we need to enter.

But at certain times it is also true that prolonged talk of movement and change is enough to send some people reaching for their Osim chair! Change can be stressful and scary! The people of Israel were about to move into a place not just full of giants but of idolatry and wickedness. Every step of faith and obedience brings risks and dangers and the challenge for the church in the midst of rapid global change is this: will we remain faithful and loyal to the Lord, or will we allow the surrounding culture to squeeze us into its mould? Will we become distinctive communities characterised by justice, integrity and compassion, or will we be seduced into syncretism to share our love and loyalty with other gods and so contribute to cultural decay?

For the Israelites, the key to living out the purposes of God in their new situation depended on their obedience to the unique word of God given through Moses. Their obedience to the law would make them distinctive among all the other nations. This underlines the missionary purpose in the giving of the law. Deuteronomy 4:5-7 connects the missionary calling of Israel with their keeping of the law. Israel's obedience to the word of God was not for Israel's benefit alone - it would make them a light to the nations, as was promised to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). Their obedience to God's law would make their society uniquely different and so serve as a model for surrounding nations. The ethical quality of life of the people of God is a major factor in their being his agents for mission among the nations (Gen. 18:18-19; Ex. 19:4-6). There is a crucial link between the faith claims that God's people make (what we say about ourselves and God) and our practical obedience and social ethics. Perhaps more than ever, we need to realise that the world will only be interested in what we say when they see our obedience in action. Obedience to the law mattered both for Israel's own well-being and crucially, for them to be a light to the nations.

This distinctive way of life is encapsulated in the Ten Commandments which have been described as 'The Makers Instructions'. As a whole they provide a value scale that reflects God's design for human life. Old Testament scholars have noted the broad ordering of priorities set out in the Decalogue beginning with God, then society, family, human life, sex, and finally, material property. But increasingly in many societies, and already in the West, this scale of priorities has been reversed. What matters most today is material property. And although done with humour and creativity, the priority of material things is relentlessly presented to us in the world of advertising. Take for instance the recent full-page ads in the Star newspaper for the new BMW Three Series which state: We created the BMW 318i Lifestyle because we believe what you drive should reflect who you are. Continuing on a very Deuteronomic note... It's dedicated to those of you who are always on the move, not just on the road but also in terms of styles, trends and society. And the final selling point comes with a ruthless twist (no doubt characteristic of all BMW drivers!): There's no better satisfaction than watching others struggle to keep up. Modern culture's inversion of the Decalogue then sets material property at the top of the list and continues with sex, followed by individual life, then family, then responsibility to society, and finally, if included at all, comes God. This is the value scale of an increasing number of people in society. Alarmingly, this is also the value scale that many Christians seem to have adopted. The result is that individual and family Christian life is being damaged and the witness of the people of God is being seriously compromised by the failure to put first things first. Walter Brueggemann perceptively captures the essence and importance of the Ten Commandments: "The Ten Commandments are not simply ten rules related to specific attitudes and actions. They are that. Taken all together, however, they are a sketch of an alternative way of envisioning and living in the world."1 With this in mind, how does the first commandment help us in our pursuit of an alternative way of living in the world?

"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before by face." (v 6, 7). Here is the heart of monotheism in the bible. Notice that the text is not simply saying "you shall believe in only one God". It is not about arithmetic: one God (monotheism), versus many gods (polytheism). Of course it is not legitimate for Israel to have any other gods to replace or sit alongside Yahweh. The main thrust of the commandment however, is the sole, exclusive, covenant sovereignty of Yahweh as God over Israel, and Israel's exclusive, total loyalty to him. Deuteronomy deals with the issue of monotheism not by philosophical discussion but by defining the character of the one, living and true God. He is the God of the Exodus who saves his people by a unique deliverance and who gives them a unique revelation. The first commandment is all about practical, exclusive, love and loyalty to the one, living and true God.

The founder of McDonalds once said: I speak in faith in McDonald's as if it were a religion. I believe in God, family and McDonalds. And in the office, that order is reversed. For many Christians that is the way it is. We have been sucked in to the value system of what has been described as McWorld:

McWorld is a product of popular culture driven by expansionist commerce. Its template is American, its form style... Is is about culture as a commodity, apparel as ideology. Its symbols are Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Cadillac motorcars hoisted from the roadways, where they once represented a mode of transportation, to the marquees of global market cafes like Harley-Davidson's and Hard Rock, where they become icons of a lifestyle... Music, videos, theatre, books, and theme parks - the new churches of a commercial civilization in which the malls and public squares... are all constructed around image exports creating a common world taste around common logos, advertising slogans, stars, songs, brand names, jingles and trademarks.2

In his book, Mustard Seed Versus McWorld, Tom Sine describes how the McWorld phenomenon is "aggressively at work creating a one-world consumer culture in which the shopping mall is replacing the church as the centre of religious devotion, and all of life is reduced to a commodity" (1999:52). But as the people of God and on the basis of his amazing grace and love, God claims our undivided loyalty. We are called to live distinctive, countercultural lives that put first things first.

Perhaps for some of us our love and loyalty is divided and therefore our witness in our family and the marketplace is weak and ineffective. God no longer comes first. We have added him to a list of other worthy priorities: getting ahead in the job comes first; getting ahead in our living situations comes first; getting our economic security comes first; getting our children to the right activities, school and university comes first... and then Jesus too! Idolatry is a very real danger for the people of God (Ex. 32:25-33:6). A haunting line in one of W. B. Yeats' poems, "The Stare's Nest By My Window", captures the self destruction of false worship: We have fed the heart on fantasies, the heart's grown brutal from the fare.

Jesus' call to discipleship was a call to deny self, take up the cross and follow. When the first disciples did that it involved the total reordering of life around Jesus. They did outrageous things like quitting their jobs, leaving their homes and committing themselves to the mission of Jesus. Do some of us need to take time out to reinvent our lifestyles and reorder our priorities? What is moulding and shaping our lives - the dominant consumer culture of McWorld, or the values of the Kingdom of God? Are we guilty of encouraging our young people to fit into the world instead of preparing them to change it? The truth has become widely recognised, sometimes too late, that we are not so much in danger of losing our young people to the cults and New Age as we are to loosing them to the new religious shrines of devotion in McWorld - the shopping malls and the philosophy of a relentless individualism. Tom Sine is surely correct when he says that, "too many... Christians of all ages are succumbing to the idolatry of modern culture."

If, in the midst of all the changes that life brings we loose our way and loose our first love, we will loose our cutting edge in a world where more than ever, solid examples are needed of lives shaped by the values of the Kingdom. The God-centred life, in the midst of change, upheaval and uncertainty is marked by God's everlastingness. For Israel, mission was about being a model to the nations. Mission is not primarily a matter of going somewhere or of doing something, but of being: living as the people of God. Living out God's priorities in our individual, family and church life. Mission begins with us being a distinctive people, countercultural, totally loyal to the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

1 Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy. Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001:72.

2 Benjamin Barber, Jihad vs McWorld, 1995:17, quoted in Tom Sine, Mustard Seed versus McWorld: Reinventing life and faith for the future. Baker Books, 1999:52.