Culture and Goodness (3)
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God amholy.’” Leviticus 19.1, 2
Help, LORD, for the godly man ceases!
For the faithful disappear from among the sons of men.
They speak idly everyone with his neighbor;
With flattering lips and a double heart they speak…
The words of the LORDarepure words,
Like silver tried in a furnace of earth,
Purified seven times. Psalm 12.1, 2, 6
Perhaps the most important of the divine attributes is holiness. The Triune God is thrice-holy, that is, holy in all His Persons, and altogether holy: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!” (Rev. 4.8) The holiness of God marks Him as completely separate from everything else, for nothing else is holy as God is holy – pure, good, true, and unchanging in all His Being and attributes.
And yet this holy God commands His people to be holy, just as He is holy. This does not suggest that we can ever attain to holiness in the same way that God is holy. Even in the new heavens and new earth, the holiness we will possess there will be first, the holiness of Jesus, and second, always incomplete, as we will continue to increase in Christlikeness for all eternity. So great is the holiness of Christ that though we can know it, we can never fully attain it, but only ever experience and refract it according to the limits of our creatureliness.
And this is true not only for how we shall be in eternity, but for our experience here and how. We can both experience and express the holiness of God, as the Spirit of God uses the Word of God to restore the image of God in us, transforming us increasingly into the likeness of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3.12-18). Thus it is crucial, as Paul emphasized, that we should strive to improve in holiness, and to bring holiness to completion in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7.1).
And this means even our use of culture can accomplish the purposes of holiness, by separating us from the wickedness, impurity, and immorality of the times in everything we do (1 Cor. 10.31). Even our most ordinary, everyday engagements with culture – language, dress, work, diversions, table manners, and all the rest – can raise a banner for holiness unto the Lord.
A literary example
We can look to the ways other Christians have used culture to learn how we may be a people holy unto the Lord in our own cultural activities. The late Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn provides an excellent example of one who devoted his writing to shining the light of truth, goodness, dignity, and, yes, holiness into the grey, bleak, deadening and deadly culture and society of Soviet Russia. Though this generation of believers has largely ignored or forgotten Solzhenitsyn’s work, heremains a shining example of faith working through love, pointing the way to holiness.
Solzhenitsyn devoted his literary work to celebrating the dignity of man amid the oppression and lies of a political system he insisted was diabolic in all its ways. In his novel, Cancer Ward, we meet real men, men with names and families, men who are dying amid a culture that is dying, and whose disease is but a microcosm of an entire society which is a cancer ward all its own. Cancer Ward is a lamentation for a life of truth, beauty, goodness, and love, that had been buried under the rubble of political oppression and lies.
The Gulag Archipelago honors the memory of millions of nameless zeks – inmates of Soviet forced-labor camps –who died under the oppressive regime of Marxist thugs.This is the book that brought Solzhenitsyn to the attention of the West, and earned him the Nobel Prize for literature, and expulsion from his beloved Russia.
And his own personal struggle to pursue art, meaning, dignity, and truth in a culture of lies and death is admirably portrayed in his biographical work, The Oak and the Calf. Solzhenitsyn and his work were condemned by the Soviet Regime, and he took up residence in the United States, before returning to Russia shortly before his death.
The way of holiness
Two excerpts from Solzhenitsyn’s writings can help us appreciate the power of culture to establish the ground of moral and spiritual truth. Each of these provides insight to Solzhenitsyn’s heart, vision, literary skill, and resolve; and each can encourage us in our own use of culture, that in all things we might be a people set apart for the Lord. Each calls for a truth and holiness in life, not unlike what we see in Psalm 12.
The first example is from Solzhenitsyn’s lecture upon receiving the Nobel Prize in 1972. In his peroration, he declared his convictions about the power of art, and applied them to the lives of ordinary people, who must stand for truth and goodness wherever and however they can: “The simple act of an ordinary man is not to participate in lies, not to support false actions! His rule: let that come into the world, let it even reign supreme – only not through me. But it is within the power of artists and writers to do much more: to defeat the lie! For in the struggle with lies art has always triumphed and shall always triumph! Visibly, irrefutably for all! Lies can prevail against much in this world, but never against art.”
The second example is from the speech, “A World Split Apart,” delivered at the Harvard commencement services in 1978. It amounts to a thinly veiled call for repentance and revival: “We cannot avoid reassessing the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities should be ruled by material expansion above all? …It will demand from us a spiritual effort; we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where…our spiritual being will not be trampled upon, as in the Modern Era. This ascension is similar to climbing onto the next anthropological stage. No one on earth has any other way left but – upward.”
Solzhenitsyn’s work shows us how one man’s commitment to spiritual truth and holiness can change the world. And it challenges us to consider how we, in all our cultural endeavors, might bring the goodness of God to light, through holiness, in all our relationships, roles, and responsibilities.
1. How would you define holiness? Do you think holiness is much prized in our society today? Explain.
2. Why is holiness inextricably linked with truth? Can we be holy without being people of the truth? If the truth of God’s Word dwells in us richly, how should we expect His holiness to be refracted through us? In what areas of our lives, and in what ways?
3. Can holiness become a more defining feature of our world without revival? Explain.
Next steps – Transformation: Would you say that Solzhenitsyn’s “simple act of an ordinary man” defines the way you live? What steps can you take that will make this more true in your life?
T. M. Moore
Photograph: Steve Liss/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image
What are you doing at 8:18 am? If you’re with Bruce Van Patter, you’re observing the goodness of God in your immediate surroundings. Take a look at Bruce’s column, and let your world come alive with goodness (click here).
Everything makes sense in life, and is good in its time and place. But only when we see things “under the heavens” rather than merely “under the sun.” Our book Comparatio shows you how Solomon struggled with this distinction, but ultimately returned to the place of seeing all goodness as of the Lord. To order a copy, click here.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.