In one of Martin Luther’s famous treatises he speaks of the church’s Babylonian Captivity. In his context this was in reference to the way the Gospel (and thus the church) had become conditioned to be what it was, programmed is even better, to imagine that the way people had been told things are by the Church, simply was the way it is. The people, en masse, had no real critical resource to imagine that what they had been told might not be the case; that the Gospel reality, and the Church of Jesus Christ might be much different than what they had been led to believe by their authorities (the magisteria of the Roman church). They simply lived in a world that was shaped by propaganda that led them into a captivity they believed simply was normal life. But Luther, following in the steps of the ad fontes (back to the sources!) movement, largely fostered by Lorenzo Valla et al., began to read the New Testament Greek afresh and anew. In Luther’s case, as he did this, he came to realize that what the church had programmed him to believe about God and the Gospel simply was not the case. As many of us know his story, he was an Augustinian monk living a tortured faith, believing that God could only be angry with him because he was such a dreadful sinner. As the church had taught him, the iustitia Dei (God’s righteousness), and the iustitia Christi (Christ’s righteousness), or the merits won by Christ for those who, by an infusion of faith, through created grace, dispensed by the sacraments of the church, were able to perdue in a way that they might finally merit Christ’s righteousness for them, thus allowing them to meet God’s righteousness, resulting in an eternal reward of beatific vision. This was what Luther agonized under, until at the direction of his spiritual father, Johann von Staupitz, he found the truth of the Gospel held captive in the pages of the New Testament, breaking free as it mediated him to the Mediator between God and humanity, Jesus Christ. Luther had a break through! He was finally able to imagine a conception of God that was outside the walls of the cell the church had built for him, and so many, for the centuries.
We are not unlike Luther back then. As North American (Western) Christians we live in a secular and post-secular world that programs us to think in narrow bounded terms informed by a meta-narrative that proclaims the evangel of humanity’s ability to live like gods; to live the way we want; to live under the dictates of what our desires tell us are the true and the beautiful and the good. The people narrating for us have become our authorities. They are the magisteria for us, just as the Romish religion was for the late mediaeval world that Luther and the people of that time were for them. We might not recognize our ‘social engineers’ this way, indeed, we wouldn’t even want to think, particularly as American Christians, that we might be being programmed by others in a way that comes close to the authorities of Luther’s day. But as Luther once noted: ““It is not unusual in the world for villains and rascals to occupy every office and station in society and to abuse it.” Christians seem to have a hard time admitting that they could be held captive by a cultural conditioning that comes close to resembling the sort of outright programming the mediaeval world had in the ex-cathedra of Rome. If this is you, or if you know of the types I am are referring to, maybe you ought to think again.
Kevin Vanhoozer, to my delight, hits upon these very themes in his new little book: Hearers & Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine. The section we will hear from him is him attempting to convict pastors, and Christians in general, to become alive to the idea that maybe, just maybe, they have become captivated by a type of Babylonian reality that has programmed them, and thus quenched their capacity to imagine that the world and reality of Holy Scripture, could in fact be the more concrete and real world; and that the vanilla status quo world they have come to think of as real and comfortable, or even just manageable, might not be the real world at all. As Vanhoozer notes, people, might be okay with affirming Scripture as God’s Word, but then function in ways that betrays this because they have become ensnared by the secular world that is indeed anti-Christ and anti-thetical to what Christian’s affirm about the Bible. Vanhoozer writes:
Holy Scripture and the Disciple’s Imagination
As I mentioned above, many churches are suffering from malnourished imaginations, captive to culturally conditioned pictures of the good life. Chapter 2 focused on wellness, health, and fitness, but these are only symptomatic of other things that have dominated the social imaginary, like celebrity, wealth, and social power. Christians want to believe the Bible—they do believe it and are prepared to defend doctrinal truth—but they nevertheless find themselves unable to see or feel their world in biblical terms (“I believe; help my unbelief!” Mark 9:24). Consequently, they experience a disconnect between the world they actually inhabit and the world of the biblical text whose truth they confess. Their professions of faith are out of whack with their lived practices. If faith’s influence is waning, then it is largely because of a failure of the evangelical imagination to connect the biblical and cultural dots. Pastors can help, especially by reminding their congregations again and again what the Bible is and what it is for: Sola Scriptura is a shorthand way of doing this insofar as it reminds us that Scripture alone should exercise supreme authority over Christian faith and life, including the imagination.
In his essay “The Demise of Biblical Civilization,” historian Grant Wacker claims that during the twentieth century, the average American did not renounce the Bible but simply stopped using it as the primary plausibility structure with which to make sense of the world. People began to understand the meaning of events in terms of this-worldly historical processes rather than in terms of divine providence. The demise of biblical civilization was a failure of the imagination to read our world in terms of God’s word. The demise of biblical civilization is related to the replacement of sola Scriptura in the social imaginary of the West by other stories.
Christian imaginations are captive to nonbiblical stories that do not lead us to Christ and thus fail to nourish our souls. We need to call these stories out and expose their shortcomings, for there is no other gospel (Gal 1:7). We cannot hide behind orthodox theology and pretend that we are invulnerable to the cultural programming that is happening to us 24/7. We need to know that the church is in competition with the powers and principalities that are trying to capture our imagination, and from thence our body, heart, and soul.
The gospel, especially the dramatic announcement that God has raised Jesus from the dead, sets the captive imagination free. What we might call the “evangelical” imagination—an imagination ruled by the story of the gospel—frees us to see, judge, and act in faith, in accordance with the way things really are rather than the way secular science or Madison Avenue say they are. It is all those other words and all that noise in contemporary culture that disorient and deserve to be called vain imaginings. The evangelical imagination alone opens up the real possibility of living along the grain of reality: according to what is really the case “in Christ.”
The Christian mind and heart are largely in captivity to the Babylonian culture we inhabit. This is a real captivity inhabited by real spiritual dark entities (Eph 6:12) who really do shape and condition and inform people who actively inhabit the ‘kingdom of darkness’ (Col 1:13). Their penetration is deeper, broader, and more intimate to our daily lives than we could ever begin to imagine; that is outwith our reliance upon and obedience to the reality of Scripture, Jesus Christ. This is why, currently, I am so shocked by people’s willingness to simply believe, as gospel truth, what the culture-makers are telling them. It is as if we are even suspicious about the depths of the coronavirus, and the numbers used to fear people into a lockdown and economic destruction of the sorts that a globalized economy has never seen before, that we are now “coronavirus truthers” (which I was recently called by a PhD in theology on Facebook).
But this is exactly the point, I think of what Vanhoozer is after. The Bible gives the Christian the “social imaginary” to think that the world we inhabit is indeed intent on conditioning us with messaging that forms us into its image. Once we become captive to this messaging, once we are thoroughly shaped by this world’s kingdom, we no longer have the spiritual capacity to imagine that something very sinister is in control of this ‘evil age’; and that that is not some abstraction, but in fact is something the enlightened civilized West is held captive to in ways that make the Canannites of old look tame. This is how what Vanhoozer is getting impacts me. I look out at a world, a “Christian” world that is consumed by materialism, and its perceived capacity to master the elements for its own purposes and creature comforts. This is the way of the nihilist and the demonic, not the via crucis (way of the cross). I’m afraid that pastors and Christians reading Vanhoozer will walk away from what he has written with no real felt sense of the depth of what the world is up against; and thus we will not have an urgency about just how needed the power of God, which is the Gospel, is needed to confront and contradict the powers and principalities that seek to suck off the world, at all costs, to its final drop.
This is why I have been so vocal about the “coronavirus,” and the messaging promoting it. It is part of the same Deus ex Machina that has been programming us for years. The Bible’s reality allows us to critically, other-worldedly, see things that this world system, and those in its clutches cannot see. But the church has become too much of this programmed world to even begin to see this. This present misinformation scam on the world will result in real life doom and destruction, and the church will simply sit there and bow the knee to its caesars; not Jesus Christ. This is a deep and broad Babylonian captivity. I pray many in the churches will be able to wake up, through the lens of Holy Scripture, and see what is for what it is. Soli Deo Gloria
 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Hearers & Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 109-10.