BY RUSTY BENSON | AFA Journal Associate Editor

According to Greek legend, the Gordian knot was so intricately wound that it resisted all attempts to untie it. That was before Alexander the Great found a solution — not by manipulating the rope, but by slicing through it with his sword.

For Christians who struggle with the knotty issue of how to be in the world, but not of the world, Dr. Gene Edward Veith, Jr., believes that a little-known doctrine from church history can help believers cut through the issue.

Veith is the executive director of The Cranach Institute, a research and educational arm of Concordia Theological Seminary. But many Christians would more readily recognize his byline as the culture editor of World magazine and author of numerous books including Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture and God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life.

In an interview with AFA Journal, Dr. Veith discussed the ideas that have influenced his views on Christians and culture.

AFA Journal: What is it about your personality or gifts that has made you interested in being a culture critic?

Veith: I think it’s a matter of calling, really. [Martin] Luther’s doctrine of vocation says that God gives each of us different gifts, interests and capabilities. He also gives each of us an external calling to a particular avenue of service. We are to use all that in love and service to our neighbor and service to God. I began as an English major, then an English professor. So I was studying the relationship of Christianity and literature. From there I became interested in the relationship of Christianity and the arts. It was just a small step to Christianity and culture in general.

AFA Journal: What writers and thinkers have influenced your views?

Veith: In dealing with worldview issues and the relevancy of Christianity in our time, Francis Schaeffer opened my eyes when I was in graduate school. Also a teaching that has helped me sort out the issues is Luther’s doctrine of two kingdoms.

There are several different theologies of culture among Christians. Some Christians believe the church should follow the culture. That’s what you see in liberal denominations and even sometimes in the evangelical church.

Other Christians believe we should take over the culture. They believe that by getting Christians in power we can make a Christian society.

Still others believe that the culture is so corrupt Christians should separate from it.

But according to the doctrine of two kingdoms, which I believe is a Biblical view, God is king of both the spiritual realm and the secular realm, but rules them in distinct ways. God rules in the church through his Word, the Holy Spirit and the Gospel. He rules in the secular sphere — even among those who don’t know Him — by virtue of his creation, the laws of nature and the moral law including civil government. I believe a Christian is called to be a citizen of both kingdoms. We are brought out of the world, but at the same time we are still part of the world.

To take that idea a step further, an important way that God rules the secular kingdom is through vocation. For example God generally answers our prayer to "give us our daily bread" by means of farmers, bakers and the whole economic system. He also uses governments and political systems to restrain sin in our world.

AFA Journal: How can Christians be involved with the political process but keep from becoming just another group seeking power.

Veith: Critics say, "You Christians, you don’t have the right to impose your beliefs on everybody else." But it’s not our morality that makes us Christians. Moral issues are common to everyone even if they have no religion. What makes us Christian is that we have found forgiveness when we do sin. Christianity is about Christ and the Gospel.

However, morality does reflect how we are to live in this world. And so for the social order to work and for families and for governments to operate, we need morality in the public square.

That is not an imposition of the Christian faith. Faith is a matter of the Gospel. Christians have sometimes confused that in our own minds, and that’s why non-Christians tend to think that Christianity is all about morality.

Our specifically Christian message should not be confused with political power — although as citizens we are to work in politics — but it needs to be kept distinct. We must not confuse the two kingdoms by making the church into a state or the state into a church.

AFA Journal: How does all that translate into a worldview to live by?

Veith: First, it allows me not to be conformed in my faith to the culture. Then it also allows me to remain engaged with the culture. There is much that I reject in the culture, but there is much I am free to accept. And I don’t necessarily have to Christianize it all.

For example, I can enjoy a song that doesn’t talk about Christ — maybe a love song — because God rules the secular culture. At the same time, that music needs to be evaluated by a moral standard.

I believe there is a lot in our culture in which God is present in a hidden way. There is a lot that is innocent and that follows God’s aesthetic order. That allows me to take a stance towards culture where I am not afraid of it, and I don’t always have to change everything. I can accept secular ideas that may not refer to God explicitly.

AFA Journal: So this doctrine of two kingdoms is the guiding principle in your work as a commentator on culture.

Veith: Yes. It gives me a helpful paradigm that lets me engage the culture without being deceived by it. I can be critical when I need to be and affirming when there is something of value there.

In addition, the doctrine of vocation tells me that I don’t have to be a pastor or missionary or always doing church activities to be effective as a Christian. I’m called to live out my Christian faith in my calling in the secular world.

We are built up in our faith in the church, then we are sent back into our families and jobs. All these are callings in which we are to serve our neighbor. Politicians, journalists, lawyers, movie stars, artists, writers — wherever God has stationed us, that’s where we are to love and serve our neighbor. We ultimately are serving Christ because He is hidden in our neighbor: "In as much as you have done it to the least of these, my brethren."

It is through vocation that evangelism happens, because that is where Christians interact with non-Christians. Vocation is also where sanctification happens as we grow in our faith when we deal with the troubles and problems. And it’s where we can influence the world. I think that if Christians could recover the doctrine of vocation it could make a huge difference in our world.

AFA Journal: In your opinion, what issues and ideas are going to shape our nation’s future?

Veith: One of the huge things in our culture that is so destructive, and I’m afraid is going to continue, is the separation between sex and procreation. God designed sex to engender new life. Luther wrote that God could have created all the people he wanted out of dust, but instead he chose to do this most amazing thing through the vocation of husbands and wives.

Consider how sexuality is portrayed in movies, music, TV shows and so forth. That portrayal of sexuality has nothing to do with bringing two people together to form a family. So sexuality has become something set loose from the family so that families are undermined by efforts to present this different vision of sex. Once you’ve done that, people can’t see what’s wrong with something like homosexuality. Sex is just pleasure.

Abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide — all these grow out of this new vision that sex and procreation are divided.

Another issue that I’m tracking is what I see as the development of a new cultural religion. To the postmodernist, everyone can have his own religion if it makes him happy. Now we’re taking another step by trying to believe in all religions.

Certainly we should be tolerant of other religions in a free society. However, I’m hearing in the culture, even among Christians, that all religions are equally valid and therefore all are true. I’m seeing the emergence of a new polytheism that tries to take all of the different gods and bring them into one kind of spirituality that is different from any of the religions. This is really something new.

AFA Journal: You often write about movies, music and art. What can these things teach Christians about our culture?

Veith: Movies, music, novels, etc., depict so much darkness in the popular culture. The most honest of these artists often admit through their work that there is no hope in their postmodern worldview. It’s almost like they are proving what we have to say — that without a foundation, life is very ugly.

It confirms what we are saying by showing that the dominant ideologies don’t work.

It also confirms the doctrine of two kingdoms in that it teaches us that God’s truth is applicable and good even for people who reject it.

For example, consider the TV show Sex and the City. It depicts very promiscuous women, yet what they all want is to get married and have kids. The fantasy of our culture is still marriage and family. That testifies to the reality of God’s kingdom in humans.

Maybe these basic human realities — the desire to find happiness and meaning in life and the yearning to be loved — will be strong enough to reassert themselves in a culture that is committing suicide.