Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity by Nancy Pearcey

total-truthMy brother Andy recently read this book and wrote a review.  I’m posting it here.  The implications of this book are huge: I can’t wait to read it for myself.

In Total Truth Nancy Pearcey argues that western (American) Christians have been indoctrinated by secular culture, and by poor theological frameworks within the church, that have caused them to acquiesce into a bifurcated system of living and seeing the world, one in which there is a secular/sacred divide that keeps faith locked into the private sphere of life and out of the public sector (17).  Pearcey states, “Many believers have absorbed the fact/value, public/private dichotomy, restricting their faith to the religious sphere while adopting whatever views are current in their professional or social circles” (33).

The problem with this is that it is a breakdown in theology and it highlights the insufficiency of many western Christians’ worldview.  A right understanding of Christianity is, “that there is a biblical perspective on everything – not just on spiritual matters” (44).  Thus, it is every Christian’s duty to think through and live out all of life from a Christian perspective.  “Being a Christian means embarking on a lifelong process of growth in grace, both in our personal lives (sanctification) and in our vocation (cultural renewal)” (49).  Christians cannot afford to accept the terms as they stand – leaving faith at home or in church on Sundays.  Rather, the Christian’s entire life should be driven by a biblical worldview.  This is the only real way to break free from the dichotomies that pervade our thinking and living.  As Pearcey states, “The best way to drive out a bad worldview is by offering a good one (58); one that unifies both secular and sacred, public and private, within a single framework (65-66).

And it is the church’s duty to work to this end.  The church is a training ground for cultivating people equipped to speak the gospel to the world (67).  And by “gospel” Pearcey does not simply mean to share that all have sinned, that Christ died for sins, and that the proper response is repentance and faith.  While it is inferred that she does believe this to be true and that it is the central message of the gospel, Pearcey argues that evangelism encompasses more than disseminating these basic truths.  She states, “The task of evangelism starts with helping the nonbeliever face squarely the inconsistencies between his professed beliefs and his actual experience” (314).  She goes on a few pages later, “In evangelism, our goal is to highlight the cognitive dissonance – to identify the points at which the nonbeliever’s worldview is contradicted by reality. Then we can show that only Christianity if fully consistent with the things we all know by experience” (319).

Moving on in her book Pearcey traces trajectories that led America into its dichotomized way of thinking.  By looking from within the church and from the outside, she exposes several contributing factors to the secular/sacred split.  First from within, Pearcey explains an overarching three-part theme that should guide the Christian worldview: Creation, Fall and Redemption.  She summarizes, “All of creation was originally good; it cannot be divided into a good part (spiritual) and a bad part (material).  Likewise, all of creation was affected by the Fall, and when time ends, all creation will be redeemed. Evil does not reside in some part of God’s good creation, but in our abuse of creation for sinful purposes” (86).  This system is, “cosmic in scope, describing the great events that shape the nature of all created reality.  We don’t need to accept an inner fragmentation between our faith and the rest of life.  Instead we can be integrally related to God on all levels of our being” (95). Using this three-part grid as a tool of analysis, Pearcey then argues, “Throughout the history of the church, various groups have tended to seize upon one of these three elements, overemphasizing it to the detriment of the other two – producing a lopsided, unbalanced theology” (87).

One such failure was Aquinas’s overemphasis of Creation, leading him to a theology of “nature/grace dualism” (92).  The outworking of this error was that the gospel was restricted to the “upper-story realm,” isolated from science, philosophy, law and politics (93).  This gave leverage for the argument that later came to fruition during the Enlightenment; namely, that science and reason are religiously neutral.  From this developed the notion that secularism and naturalism are objective, rational systems, binding on everyone, all the while biblical views are dismissed as biased, private opinions (94).

Once there was an accepted dichotomy between “nature” and “grace,” it was not hard to convince anyone that “science constitutes facts while morality is about values” (107).  And with Darwins’s theory of natural selection came the ability to have a complete naturalistic worldview (106).  The effect of Darwin’s theory has been pervasive.  Pearcey states, “Virtually every part of society has been affected by the Darwinian worldview” (155).

What is insightful by Pearcey, though, is that the overwhelming acceptance of this dichotomy and of naturalism as the “lower-level” neutral sphere of truth is all based upon a philosophical foundation.  The under girding of naturalism is the belief that matter is eternal and that the “system” is closed – neither of which can be proven on naturalist, scientific terms.  Nonetheless, “once people have made that philosophical commitment, they can be persuaded by relatively minor evidence” (168).  Furthermore, at this point, the “game” is biased, because once the two-tiered view of reality is accepted, the naturalists define the rules for access into the “lower realm.”  Science (empiricism) is put forward as the only viable means for validating truth claims.  Or conversely, we must now accept naturalism as a “central tenet” of science (169).

Moving on, Pearcey progresses to show how the dichotomy made its way into the development of our country’s politics and religion.  Originally, in the colonial period, the dominant political philosophy was classical Christian republicanism.  But with the development of thought – that cannot be divorced from the Enlightenment and Darwinism – came the new liberalism, which replaced the sentiment of self-sacrifice and the social structures of family and church with individualism.  The focus was now on self-assertion and self-interest (280).  Even evangelicalism1 with all of its positive affects in many ways worked to further the gap.  The focus on individual conversion led to a doctrine of one-time emotional decisionalism, which ultimately contributed to the belief that Christianity is a “noncognitive, upper-story phenomenon” (272).  Pearcey concludes, “Evangelicalism has largely given in to the two-story division that renders religion a matter of individual experience, with little or no cognitive content” (293).

Pearcey eventually reveals that the bifurcation of public/private has made it into the culture in which we are currently living.  And therefore Christians have a great responsibility to fight against this way of thinking because it opposes truth.  “What Christianity offers is a unified, integrated truth that stands in complete contrast to the two-level concept of truth in the secular world” (119).   So what we must do is “evangelize”2 culture by exposing the flaws of other worldviews and then reveal that the Christian worldview offers a better alternative.  And the alternative we offer is not simply for the private sector; we must, “find ways to make it clear that we are making claims about reality, not merely our subjective experience” (119).

Critical Evaluation
The premise set forth in this book has exposed an entire schema of thinking that I have used to interpret reality.  While I have thought for some time that what Christians need is an entire worldview from which to operate, I have failed to see the pervasive nature of the public/private dichotomy in the western world and my acceptance of it many times.  As a result, there are some questions I now have in relation to this new enlightenment.  For one, how am I to understand the concept of “separation of church and state?”  Originally, this clause was set forth to guard from the establishment of a church-state and to protect the right of individuals from forced religion.  But as it is used now, it seems to “guard” the government from any religious influence (except naturalism), and this seems to be an extension of the public/private dichotomy.  It would be fitting to trace how it is that we should specifically think through this concept of “separation.”

Another trajectory worth tracing is what the implications are for the education of Christian children.  If evangelism is as broad as Pearcey defines it3, and if,  “every subject area should be taught from a solidly biblical perspective so that students grasp the interconnections among the disciplines, discovering for themselves that all truth is God’s truth (129), then is public school even an option for Christian parents?  And furthermore, where do we start as Christian parents in building a biblical worldview with our children?

Lastly, Pearcey calls for us to engage culture by exposing to individuals the inconsistencies in their worldview.  But at what point do we share what Paul calls of first importance: that Christ died, that he was buried and that he rose again?4  And what’s the order in our attempt to put forward both the central gospel message, and an entire worldview that comes with it?

Review by Andy Adkison

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