FREE Online Course

How to Thrive in a Polytheistic American Culture, Part 5

christian living culture public theology May 28, 2023
How to thrive in a polytheistic culture with an aggressive agenda

What do you do when you meet someone who has a very different story than yours?

How do you respond to someone whose life experience is so different from you that it causes them to think and live and worship in ways that are foreign to your experiences?

How do you talk to someone about your faith, when their life experiences and the stories they believe make it almost impossible for them to believe your story?


The Two Lenses of the Fiery Furnace

In order to address some of those questions, I want to go over the story found in Daniel, Chapter 3 — the story of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and the fiery furnace.

As I go through the story, I want to frame it with two ideas. This is the bifocal lens through which I want you to experience the story.

From a cultural/anthropological perspective, these two lenses are what is happening beneath the surface of this story.

The first lens is the idea of competing narratives.

Every culture is built on a governing story and usually an entire set of stories that developed as the culture grew and expanded.

Technically, these stories are called “myths.” A “myth” is any world-view-building story.

The second lens is the idea of the limitations of tolerance as a virtue.

I need to unpack each of those lenses a little more — and in particular, make some contemporary applications — so that you will understand what I mean when I get to them in the story.


Competing Narratives

We are not primarily intellectual creatures. We are not, for the most part, driven by facts and data. No matter how much modernity wants to claim that — the irony is that the anthropological and historical data prove that we are first and foremost driven by our passions, our longings, and our desires. What the Bible called “the heart,” and “the stomach,” not “the mind.”

The Bible uses all three to mean something quite specific, but it recognized that human beings are driven by their desires and feelings (the heart) and their passions and natural instincts (the stomach) much more than logic or rational thinking (the mind).

This is why when God wanted to transform us through the power of his words, he didn’t create a book of facts and data — not mostly — the Bible is mostly a book of stories. The Bible tells a story — or a set of stories.

The gospel message is a story. Even the writings of Paul — which are letters and a bit more didactic on the surface — are fueled by a story. Ben Witherington writes that there is a story humming underneath everything Paul writes — it’s Paul's transformative Damascus Road story.

Behavior is driven by these narratives that are humming in your brain all the time. They are mostly the narratives that were given to you in childhood.

So, I want you to look for the narratives driving each character in the story … and see how they become competing narratives. This is when things get dicey.

Later, we’ll talk more about narratives and the secular age we live in.


The Limitations of Tolerance as a Virtue

What I mean by that is that tolerance is a good and important tool for nations and empires to consolidate power and thrive. It’s an important tool for working together for the common good in a diverse society.

It serves us well for that but it is disastrous when elevated to the status of virtue. Primarily because tolerance has some glaring limitations, whereas healthy virtues are limitless.

If you want to get a good theological and historical discussion of the role of tolerance read A.J. Conyers' excellent book, “The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit.”

His contention is that although the vestiges of toleration were present to some degree as far back as the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires — toleration rose to its greatest prominence during the middle ages and the slow coalescence of the European city-states.

This may very well be a Eurocentric view of tolerance but it still makes the salient point — Tolerance is not a virtue, it is a tool in the hands of the powerful to consolidate and maintain power.

I know that this may be tough for some of you who have come to preach tolerance as the great American virtue. It’s hard to discover that the thing you have built your world around is actually a fraud and a tool in the hands of the powerful. So, if you don’t want to hear the historical proof of that, let me appeal to your ears. Your ears will not lie to you.

I’m going to use the word “tolerance” or “toleration” in a virtue statement, and then I’ll use the real virtue in the same sentence.

Virtue statement #1 -- “I am going to tolerate you.”

Really? That's your virtue? It sounds like, "I want to kill you, but I'm going to let you live. I'm going to tolerate you." 

That's not a bad thing to do -- choose toleration over murder -- but, it's not a virtue. 

Virtue Statement #2 -- “I am going to love you.”

There's a true virtue. 

Toleration, as it turns out, is a puny and pathetic faux substitute for a  true virtue — love.

So, we’re going to see the breakdown of tolerance and the competing narratives in the story. 


Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Fiery Furnaces

By chapter 3 of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have risen to powerful administrative positions within the Empire. They got there through a combination of administrative talents, social equity, and divine intervention (primarily through Daniel’s gifts for interpreting dreams which gave the Hebrews coattails of sorts for rising through the ranks of the Babylonian governing system).

As their star rose they were given the freedom to worship their own God, Yahweh. No one was stopping them from doing that.

Daniel 3:12 makes it clear —

“But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.”

They are allowed to follow their own worship practices and to live by the tune of their own narratives until there is a competing narrative that disallows it.

That’s what happens with the golden image of Nebuchadnezzar.


The Cult of the Divine Emperor

Let’s talk about that golden image and what is really happening in the story.

What Nebuchadnezzar was doing was not uncommon in antiquity. He was setting up a divine emperor narrative that was vital for the propagation of his dynasty. The cult of the divine emperor would trump all other narratives. It was vital for the continuation of his rule.

The masters of the divine cult were the Egyptians. There is almost zero evidence of any bloodshed in Egypt from one dynasty of Pharaohs to the other. The reigns of power would transfer from one family to another through the power of the narrative of the divinity of the Pharoah (Pharoah was the Egyptian equivalent of “king” or “emperor”).

So powerful was this narrative that Egyptologists conjecture that the only thing that ended a particular family dynasty was never rebellion or civil war, but rather the sterilization of the Pharoah because of the practice of incestuous inbreeding.

Nebuchadnezzar was taking a page from the Egyptian playbook in attempting to set up a divine emperor cult for the solidification of his power and the continuation of his dynastic legacy.

This is why he was so angry when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego fail to comply. It was his very kingship that was on the line. If his own top administrators didn’t buy into the divine emperor cult, then how can he expect the common people to buy into it?

The divine cult works that way — everyone has to get on board with it or it won’t work.

What Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego encounter (that almost crushes them) is a competing narrative.

They have their own narrative based on Torah where Yahweh says,

“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them …”

That’s the narrative playing in their brains.

And Torah was filled with cautionary tales — stories about what happened to those who disobeyed the very first of the Ten Commandments. These OT narratives are dripping with the blood of those who became idolaters. These were the narratives that made them who they were and they could not submit to a competing narrative.

To do so would be to betray their core convictions and would require them to sell their own souls to the competing narrative. It would be tantamount to emotional, psychological, and spiritual suicide. They literally couldn’t do it and remain intact.

Notice again the complaint against the three Hebrew leaders in Daniel 3:12:

“But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.”

There are a couple of half-truths in that statement that set up the one true thing they say — I want you to see how the culture will take hold of the narrative and in fact, has its own set of false narratives. The culture in a secular age claims to be objective, but it is not — it has its own set of narratives.

Half-truth #1 — They pay no attention to you. FALSE.
Half-truth #2 — They do not serve your gods. FALSE.
Truth statement — They do not worship the image of gold.

So, what are they really saying?

“These guys are in critical positions of power and they are not like us — they don’t worship our gods and they don’t worship your golden image. They refuse to become like us — so, how can you keep them in their positions of power?”

Makes sense to me. Why would you do that?

They tell Nebuchadnezzar that this is the narrative and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The power of the throne is at stake. Babylon as we know it is at stake.

What is really going on here? A competing narrative created with lies, half-truths, and just enough truth to make it palatable. The reason it is so dangerous is that there’s just a pinch of truth in it and that’s enough to make it sound right. The danger with this narrative is that it makes so much sense.

Yes. Of course. Why would you keep them in power?


The Narrative of the Secular Age

Charles Taylor in “A Secular Age,” challenges the grand narrative of the secular age which goes something like this —

The worldview of the secular age is simply what you get when you base your ideas on facts and observable data. In other words, secular age thought is simply logical and rational thought purged of all dogma and religious thought based on myths, legends, superstition, and wishful, delusional thinking.

It’s what Taylor calls the secular age narrative of subtraction.

If we just subtract all the fantastical thinking and ridiculous superstitions and mythological stories of religion, what we are left with is the rational and logical thinking of the secular age which is based completely on rational thought and logical conclusions based on solid data.

Taylor sets out to show that this is a false narrative. That the secular age has its own narrative (not based on the subtraction of other narratives), with its own mythological stories and its own liturgies and its own sacred texts, and its own passions and fervor (a fervor that could only be described as religious).

In other words, the Secular Age has its own religion with its own narratives that are no more valid than any other competing narratives. The Secular Age’s confident pronouncements of its own objectivity do not make it true.

Yahweh’s rescue of the three from the fiery furnace is not a vindication of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — in fact, it has nothing to do with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (and they seem to know it — they as much as admit that — it’s not about us — if he saves us he saves us, if he doesn’t, he doesn’t — either way, we’re not changing our narrative to fit yours because this isn’t about us).

What is it then? It’s about the vindication of the biblical narrative against the competing narratives of the polytheistic culture.


The Response to the False Narrative

Listen to what they say in response to Nebuchadnezzar.

Nebuchadnezzar gives them one last chance to bow to the golden image and he warns them that if they don’t, then he will throw them into the fiery furnace that has already been prepared and is seven times hotter than usual so that no one could possibly escape alive.

Nebuchadnezzar says (3:15) — “Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”

Nebuchadnezzar is saying — You live in Babylon now and in Babylon I am god, and there are no other gods in Babylon who can trump me. Which means, I am the only one who can save you.

He was attempting a justification for bowing to the golden image. He was clarifying the Babylonian narrative.

Now listen to the narrative playing in the heads and hearts of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (3:16-18):

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

There is some controversy over v.17 — the best manuscripts make it a conditional statement and most translations have worked to get rid of the conditional by applying the conditional statement to the fiery furnace.

If we are thrown into the fiery furnace then our God is able and will save us. A translation that doesn’t take into account the conditional nature of the second statement in v. 18.

The conditional statement makes the most sense grammatically when applied to God, not the fiery furnace. So it’s —

If our God is able to save us from the fiery furnace, then he will save us … but even if he doesn’t save us …

This makes perfect sense if you take into consideration that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had lived through the fiery furnace of the sacking of Jerusalem. Do I need to remind you what happened with that?

2 Chronicles 36:17-20 —

“He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians, who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. He carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the LORD’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials. They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there. He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power.”

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew from first-hand experience, from eye-witness experience, they knew that God doesn’t always rescue people from fiery furnaces. They had seen plenty of their loved ones killed by the sword, even as they lifted their prayers to Yahweh in the temple (the holiest place on earth and the closest anyone could ever get to God) and Yahweh didn’t rescue them.

What do you do with that?

Well … when you come to your next fiery furnace you say ... we’ll see whether or not God saves us — maybe he will, maybe he won’t — we believe that he can and will save us — but please know this — that even if he doesn’t rescue us from this fiery furnace — it won’t change anything about our decision.

We will never bow down to you because our refusal is not based on personal well-being or safety. In other words, it’s not about us. They say three things:

#1 - We don’t need to defend ourselves.
#2 - If our God is able then he will deliver us.
#3 - Even if he doesn’t deliver us, we will never bow down to you.

So can we say to a polytheistic culture with an aggressive agenda built on exclusive humanism — Hey. Look. We don’t feel any need to defend ourselves against you. We don’t think our words will prove our narrative superior to yours. Words never do. Because we are not driven by logic or facts. We are driven by passion and desire and longing and by the narratives that those passions and feelings have built in our minds.

That’s true of every religion on earth and it's true of the secular religion of the secular age.

So in the spirit of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego we say, — We’ll let God fight our battles for us and we’ll let our actions and the future ramifications of our narrative speak for themselves. But, even if things don’t go our way (in the short term) — please know that we will never bow down to your demands. We will never capitulate to your false narratives.


The Glaring Limitations of Tolerance as a Virtue

And this is where we see tolerance completely break down.

Nebuchadnezzar was proud that he had built possibly the most progressive culture of his day. A culture that was comparatively tolerant of other gods.

But, tolerance is by its nature, selective. Because the culture that preaches tolerance cannot tolerate those that they view as being intolerant. This is the place where tolerance breaks down.

A culture or society that elevates tolerance to the stature of supreme virtue will always devolve into a fascist state that practices selective tolerance OR becomes intolerant to those it deems a danger to the supreme virtue of tolerance.

The most progressive culture of its day — a culture that prided itself on welcoming all people from all over the earth (just look at the list in 3:4) and accepting other gods — is reduced to throwing disagreeable people into fiery furnaces.

The church has been guilty of that.
So has the state.
So has liberal academia.
So has the media.
So has the Secular Age.
So has any institution, ideology, or government made up of human beings.

There is only one virtue worthy of that elevation. Only one virtue is truly inexhaustible and incorruptible. That virtue is love.

And that’s what Jesus came to teach us. It’s what he came to show us.



Get practical, Biblical Teaching delivered to your inbox.

Developing a faith that has a powerful impact on the world is a marathon, not a sprint. We’ll guide you to the finish line with weekly bite-sized bible teaching and other resources designed to elevate your spiritual life.

You're safe with me. I'll never spam you or sell your contact info.