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
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 its a matter of calling, really. [Martin]
Luthers 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
AFA Journal: What writers and thinkers have influenced your
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 Luthers doctrine of two kingdoms.
There are several different theologies of culture among Christians.
Some Christians believe the church should follow the culture. Thats
what you see in liberal denominations and even sometimes in the
Other Christians believe we should take over the culture. They
believe that by getting Christians in power we can make a Christian
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 dont
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 dont
have the right to impose your beliefs on everybody else." But
its 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 thats 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
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 dont necessarily have to Christianize
For example, I can enjoy a song that doesnt 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
Gods aesthetic order. That allows me to take a stance towards
culture where I am not afraid of it, and I dont 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
In addition, the doctrine of vocation tells me that I dont
have to be a pastor or missionary or always doing church activities
to be effective as a Christian. Im 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,
thats 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 its 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 nations future?
Veith: One of the huge things in our culture that is so
destructive, and Im 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
youve done that, people cant see whats 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 Im 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 were taking another
step by trying to believe in all religions.
Certainly we should be tolerant of other religions in a free society.
However, Im hearing in the culture, even among Christians,
that all religions are equally valid and therefore all are true.
Im 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
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.
Its 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
It also confirms the doctrine of two kingdoms in that it teaches
us that Gods 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 Gods 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