Reading Time: 9 minutes

Charlie Brown and Winston Churchill, 50 years later

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

facebook twitter instagram

Charlie Brown standing beside his Christmas tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas, an animated musical television special based on the comic strip Peanuts (Credit: Charles M. Schulz)

Charlie Brown turned 50 this December.  Or at least, his Christmas show did.

A Charlie Brown Christmas nearly didn’t make it to the air in 1965.  CBS executives thought the plot was too slow and didn’t like the jazz music sound track.  They allowed the show to air but said “it will probably be the first and last Charlie Brown show.”  It turned out, half the country watched when the show aired on December 9, 1965.  It led to four feature films (a fifth is planned for November 2015) and 45 television specials.

Changing subjects dramatically, the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death is coming next month.  Churchill died on January 24, 1965, at the age of 90.  I’ve been reading Boris Johnson’s new biography of Winston Churchill, titled The Churchill Factor.  Johnson is mayor of London and has studied Churchill for most of his life.  I too have paid much attention to Churchill over the years and visit his War Rooms each year when teaching a seminar for Dallas Baptist University at Oxford.

Nonetheless, there is much in Johnson’s biography I did not know.  Churchill’s library exceeded 60,000 volumes. His vocabulary exceeded 65,000 words, two to three times the average person’s.  He basically invented the tank during World War I and was one of the first government officials in the world to fly and perhaps the first to recognize aviation’s value for war.

But the part of Churchill’s story that Johnson highlights most is his indispensability to world events.  He calls this “the Churchill factor.”  According to Johnson, Churchill was better than any leader in the world at predicting the future.  He saw the perils of Nazism when many were counseling appeasement.  He saw the crucial nature of America’s involvement in the war when most Americans refused to have anything to do with the European conflict.  Time after time, he was able to predict human behavior with remarkable precision.

How?  According to Johnson, Churchill could see the future because he understood the past.  He knew that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.  For Churchill, history is destiny.  Knowing the past and using it to change the future was “the Churchill factor.”

Taking a page from Churchill, let’s look at the last 50 years in American culture and imagine where we’ll be in the future.

America, past and future

In 1964, the divorce rate was 24 percent; today it is 50 percent for first marriages, 67 percent for second and 74 percent for third.  Most crimes are much more common today than they were 50 years ago: violent crimes, rapes and assaults have doubled per capita.  The number of Americans who say they have no religious affiliation has grown eight-fold since 1964.  One-third of young adults state that they have no religious identity.

Perhaps the most significant cultural change in recent years has been in the area of sexual ethics.  Ten years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine the legalization of same-sex marriage.  Today, 35 states have legalized gay marriage, and more seem poised to do the same.

Will sexual ethics continue to evolve?

A German psychologist says of pedophilia, “It’s a handicap.  I try to compare it to having diabetes.”  A recent article in The Guardian documents the growing movement to reclassify pedophilia as a sexual orientation and to legalize consensual pedophilic relations.

Polygamy is also in our legal future, if proponents have their way.  As many as 50,000 to 100,000 Muslims in the United States already live in polygamous families.  A man marries one wife in a civil ceremony that is recognized by the state, then two or three others in religious ceremonies that are not recognized by the state.  Will their numbers (and voting power) continue to grow?

According to a recent study, “young adults’ attitudes toward polygamous marriage were neutral.”  Will society’s shifting views on marriage soon include acceptance of polygamy?  If so, why would legal definitions of marriage not follow suit?

And bestiality is in the news as well.  A recent New York magazine interview with a man who has sexual relations with a horse highlights the “zoophilia” movement.  The essay was remarkably neutral with regard to the ethics of such behavior.

Cultural analyst Damon Linker comments:

Why, then, is the New York interview a big deal?  Because it’s perhaps the most vivid sign yet that, in effect, the United States (and indeed the entire Western world) is running an experiment—one with very few, if any, antecedents in human history.  The experiment will test what happens when a culture systematically purges all publicly affirmed notions of human flourishing, virtue and vice, elevation and degradation.

According to Linker, our prevailing moral value today is “niceness,” which he defines as “the moral principle of equal recognition and affirmation.”  Condemning the morality of others, including those who engage in bestiality, is mean and therefore morally wrong.

Where will our amorality lead us?  Linker says we cannot know for certain “because there has never been a human society built exclusively on a morality of rights (individual consent) and an ethic of niceness, with no overarching vision of a higher human good to override or compete with it.”

What hasn’t changed is what matters most

Here’s what hasn’t changed: human nature.  We still feel the same fears and cherish the same hopes as our parents and grandparents did 50 years ago.  Nor has God’s nature changed.  Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).  The Bible is still relevant because the God it reveals is still relevant to our deepest needs and desires.

How can we demonstrate the relevance of God’s timeless truth to the issues of our day?  James Davison Hunter’s magnum opus is titled, To Change the World.  This University of Virginia sociology professor turned down an appointment to Princeton to continue his work with the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.  He may be the most profound voice on culture change writing and speaking in America today.

How does he think culture is changed?  He begins with ways it is not.

Culture does not change by winning elections. For instance, during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, divorce rates escalated.  Gay marriage made significant inroads in American culture during the presidency of the second George Bush.

Culture does not change by evangelism and church attendance. More than 80% of Americans are identified with some faith community, yet our culture is intensely secularistic and materialistic.  By contrast, the Jewish community has never comprised more than 3.5% of our population, yet its contributions to science, literature, art, music, film and architecture have been remarkable.  At least 180 Jews have been awarded the Nobel Prize, constituting 36% of all American recipients.

Culture does not change by popularity. While more evangelical books are being sold than ever before, they primarily target the faith community and exist out of the cultural mainstream.  Few are ever reviewed by the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.  People have heard of Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, but we cannot claim that our culture has been changed by their popularity.  How does a culture change?

Dr. Hunter calls us to “manifest faithful presence” where we are, with those we influence, and seek to develop leaders at places of the greatest effective influence in our culture.  When we use our influence to speak biblical truth to our culture, the Holy Spirit uses us in ways we can measure and in ways we cannot.

Does this work?  In fact, God is using Christians of influence in transforming ways today.  Church historians tell us that major movements happen every 500 years in the Kingdom of God.  Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence likens this phenomenon to a garage sale where the church cleans out its attic and puts on the curb whatever it’s no longer using.

500 years ago, the Protestant Reformation sought to give the church back to the people.  Today we are working to give the ministry back to the people, to empower and accelerate the work of God’s people to meet needs in Jesus’ name and advance the Kingdom through their gifts and influence.

500 years ago, the printing press enabled the church to disseminate the Scriptures and disciple the nations.  Today the Internet enables gospel partners to reach the world with the good news of God’s love.

500 years ago, the Reformation led to the advent of denominations, which were the primary way churches and ministries worked together.  Today God’s Spirit is leading us across denominations to share in gospel movements that unify the church and bring glory to his name.  As a result, more people are coming to Christ around the world than ever before in Christian history.

Conclusion

When people of influence choose to use their influence together for God’s glory, great things happen.  Charles Schulz is an example.  The creator of the Peanuts cartoons was a Methodist Sunday school teacher.  Many have pointed out the biblical themes that run throughout Schulz’s work.

The artist’s desire to use his platform for faith was apparent when A Charlie Brown Christmas aired.  At one point, Charlie Brown complains about the commercialism of the holidays and asks, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”  Linus steps to center stage and asks that the lights be dimmed.  He then recites Luke 2:8-14:

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.  And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (ESV).

Bill Menendez, one of Schulz’s producers, objected to including Scripture in the show.  He told Schulz, “You know, I don’t think animated characters have probably ever read from the Bible.”  Shultz replied, “Bill, if we don’t do it, who will?”

My favorite definition of greatness is Alfred North Whitehead’s assertion: Great people plant trees they’ll never sit under.