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Listening In - A conversation with Jefrey Breshears

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WORLD Radio - Listening In - A conversation with Jefrey Breshears

Where did America's culture war start and what can Christians do about it?


Jefrey Breshears Handout

I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with Jefrey Breshears. He is the author of a new book called American Crisis: Cultural Marxism and The Culture War: A Christian Response.

SOUNDBITE: The early church, if you want to describe it, or characterize it as moderately socialistic, to use modern terminology, the early church really practiced voluntary socialism, or voluntary communalism out of a sincere love for others. So, which is totally different, of course from secular political socialism, which is government mandated. It's always invariably coercive and involuntary.

Jefrey Breshears took an interesting path to become one of the most quietly influential thinkers in evangelicalism today. He was raised in the church, a conservative Baptist church, and he never completely left the faith of his youth, but he did have sojourns in what today we sometimes call the religious left or “progressive Christianity.” We’ll talk about that in our conversation today.

Jefrey also spent time in the music industry, working for both secular and Christian record labels in the early days of the Jesus Music era. His experiences there have informed his approach to apologetics, and his strategy at the Aeropagus Forum, which is a study center that combines apologetics with history and contemporary cultural issues.

Jefrey Breshear’s new book is American Crisis: Cultural Marxism and the Culture War: A Christian Response. He spoke to me from his office in Atlanta.

WS: Well, Jefrey, welcome to the program. It is really great to see you and to have this chance to talk. You and I have known each other for a very long time.

JB: Absolutely. Almost in a prior life, I'd say.

WS: Well, in fact, in some ways it was a prior life. And that's partly, the reason I said that is partly because that's why I, that's where I want to start our conversation. You were raised in a Christian home. And you, in your book, devote a couple of chapters to your own personal upbringing in Odyssey. And I think that because your book is so rich with, and so big, nearly 500 pages, 450 pages, that maybe telling your personal story might be the best and easiest way for us to get into that. Talk about your upbringing. Talk about your Christian home, and what that taught you and what the limitations of it were.

JB: Well, thank you, I certainly appreciate the opportunity. I rarely, obviously, I rarely ever get to speak about personal things. And it is a relatively small portion of the book. But I'm always pleased to be able to do that. I appreciate that very much. I grew up in a very devout, very sincere and committed Christian family. My father was a very dominant and expressive personality. He was absolutely one of the most principled and disciplined people I think I've ever known. And when he set his mind to something he absolutely would not be deterred. He was, I would say, a dogmatic moralist. He was rarely puzzled by the kind of vagarities and ambiguities that confound most people. In fact, as one biographer once wrote about Theodore Roosevelt, Dad seemed to be born with his mind already made up. Now what he did possess, among other qualities, was what C.S. Lewis oftentimes referred to in his writings, as the most rare of all the virtues. And that is courage. And so I very much admired that in my father as well. He had three passions really in life: his Christian faith, of course, his wife and family, and also he very much loved America. And so I grew up with those kind of values. In fact, he would oftentimes use our supper time as a teaching opportunity. Now, like most families back then, we would usually eat supper together. And we oftentimes, of course, would chat about what went on at school or work that day, and so on. But he also would use that dinner time to talk about current events and politics and church and the Bible. And one of his great passions was Biblical prophecy. He would also use the time oftentimes on Sunday afternoons to critique the pastor's sermon from that, from that morning.

WS: Well, Jefrey, let me jump in here and interrupt you because as I read in your book, and as you've just described, I mean, there's much admirable, much honorable about what you just said about your dad and about your upbringing. And clearly you share a lot of those values today. I mean, you your passion for Scripture, and the family, and for America are pretty clear in your book. However, there was another side to that upbringing in the 1950s and ‘60s. You you mentioned for example, the fascination of many conservatives, including your father, with the John Birch Society and with conspiracy theories, and the Trilateral Commission and the Illuminati and all of that kind of stuff. Can you, can you say a little bit more about that and how that how those ideas influenced your dad, and how they influenced you, either in the acceptance or the rejection of them?

JB: Yes, very good question. I grew up from the time I was about 10 or so he would take me to various conservative meetings. We were living in Orange County, California. Anaheim, California at the time. And so I would accompany him. We would see some of the latest films, produced by conservatives. He was very involved in the John Birch Society. So all of that was very much familiar to me as I was growing up. When I went off to junior high school in seventh grade, I joined the Young Americans for Freedom local chapter. So that was very familiar, a very familiar subculture to me. I heard in person at various churches some of the prominent Christian, conservative, right wing evangelists of the day. So yes, I, I was pretty well indoctrinated in that whole orientation by the time I got to high school.

WS: So what then changed in you? And when did it change? Because at some point, you observed that while there were, there was some truth wrapped up in these conspiracy theories, that there was also some significant deficiencies in that worldview. That it was not a truly Christian worldview, and not a full orbed Christian worldview. In fact, one of the things that you said in your book that really captured my imagination and attention was that often your dad and some of these, you know, right wing conservatives of the 1950s, and ‘60s, got the good, and the true, pretty well. They, you know, they kind of understood that, but they didn't get the beautiful. That, that there was a very limited aesthetic, and that the beautiful, really depend upon each other, that you can't sort of separate them and pull them apart, that it over time really started eroding your confidence in their vision of the good and the true as well as the beautiful.

JB: Well, from my perspective, as a teenager, and then in college, there was so much about conservative evangelicalism that was so out of sync with the times. Now that's not, of course, necessarily negative. Not at all. Because our times are usually very out of sync with Biblical principles. But yes, in in the churches I grew up in there was a lot of emphasis on, on theology, on Biblical history, and so on, what is true and what is good. But as you've pointed out, the element of the beautiful was oftentimes missing. And I've thought about that over the years. And, you know, when you think about the origins of what we would call modern art, it really begins with the Renaissance. And the Renaissance, of course, is oftentimes described as a very humanistic movement. Now, that's not to be confused with secular humanism that's so prevalent today. But the humanism of the Renaissance, of course, was a celebration of human creativity and ingenuity. And there was much about it that, frankly, was very, very inspiring and very compatible with a, with a Christian worldview. Now, centuries later, of course, as the Reformation came about, Protestants, most Protestants, regarded anything that was associated with Catholicism or Catholic tradition, to be tainted and suspicious, due to, for instance, all the very garish and ostentatious art and icons that decorated Catholic churches and cathedrals.

So in general, and I am speaking in broad generalizations here, Protestantism and of course, also Anabaptism, which very much influenced my Christian faith and development, both of those forces Protestantism and Anabaptist sought to return to what they regarded as the simple expressions of the of the Christian faith that they felt characterized the early church. We know, for example, that Martin Luther wanted icons removed from churches and so on. So to update it to my father's time and my younger years, by the turn of the 20th century, of course, a lot of the popular art, the visual arts, the music, the performing arts, and so on, a lot of it was created and performed, of course, by non Christians. And increasingly much of the music, and later, of course, the movies, expressed very secular themes. Now, I wouldn't want to exaggerate the issue, but I think that there was a general tendency on the part of conservative Christians to ignore music and movies and other art forms that, in fact, have certainly been tainted, maybe even outright corrupted by non-Christians, oftentimes propagating a very anti-Christian value system. Popular culture in general, and certainly popular music, as we know is overwhelmingly mediocre at best. But there was always some that's wholesome. There's always some that's inspiring. There's always some that is credible. It may be a very tiny percentage of all the music and the movies and the TV that's produced, but that 2% or 3% can certainly enrich our lives, but we have to be proactive in terms of finding it. And I think there was a tendency on the part of many Christians, adult Christians, not to bother with it at all, because again, they found it overwhelmingly negative.

WS: And your love of music is where you got to be out of step I guess a bit with your upbringing because you love music, right? And ultimately, you ended up working for one of the record labels.

JB: Well, yes. Other than baseball, I'd say music was probably my passion growing up.

WS: By the way, Jefrey, just for the record. As you and I are watching this, the Braves you're playing an afternoon game with the Cubs and I've got them on the television behind us. But that's that's a subject for another day.

JB: Well and life is not fair. Because I understand up there in Chicago today, the weather is nearly perfect. Whereas here in Georgia, it is nearly as hot as hell or Texas, whichever you want to use for the proper analogy.

WS: Right. But anyway, so other than baseball, our shared passion for baseball and our shared passion for music, you know, it was this more music. Music is more relevant to our conversation right now. The that, you know, kind of caused a turning, shall we say in your life?

JB: Well, it was quite influential. Again, I was very much enraptured with a lot of popular music of the 60s and early to mid 70s. A lot of it was just incredibly creative. A lot of the music of Bob Dylan and The Beatles and of course, many others that we could cite. Now, I felt like I had a fairly good grounding, in terms of what is true and good. Evangelical churches were very, very adept at clearly addressing critical moral issues and so on. But there was something that I felt at the time was seriously lacking. And also, when I looked at the total dysfunctionality of American society and culture in the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s, I think music became more than anything else, an escape. I did not see a whole lot in America at the time that I would have felt was in sync with the truth and the goodness that we encounter in Scripture. So I think with that being the case, I gravitated toward music, looking for some meaning, some purpose, some beauty and fulfillment in music. So my first job out of college actually was with Capitol Records. Capitol Records had a large distribution center here in Atlanta at the time, as there were five or six of these scattered around the country. And of course, that was the company that had produced some of the most popular recording artists of the previous 10 or 15 years, going all the way back to the Kingston Trio, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and so on. When I was at Capitol, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon was released - one of the most popular records of course of the 1970s. So for me, music was, as I said, a therapeutic escape from the realities, the ugly realities of what was so prevalent in American society and culture at the time.

WS: Well as you got more deeply into music and started seeing some of the limitations of your upbringing, your fundamentalist or evangelical upbringing, you didn't renounce your faith, but you did branch out a bit - you tested other waters. Jefrey, from where you and I sit today, I think you and I are both pretty familiar with the narrative of progressive Christianity or exvangelicals or the movement that some people call the deconstructing of faith. Some of them still want to hold on to the label of Christian, they want to still say they're Christians, while they reject core Christian doctrines. You didn't exactly reject core Christian doctrines during this era, but you were questioning the evangelical subculture and some of the conservative American political climate as well, especially those elements that seemed to go hand in glove with the evangelical subculture. Can you say a little about that, that flirtation with progressive Christianity and the deconstructing of your faith?

JB: Well, I worked for Capitol Records for a couple of years. I, it was a very hedonistic environment, of course. So during that period of time, I I really recommitted my life to Christ. And I wanted to go to work for the company that produced most of the popular Jesus music of the early to mid 1970s. And that was Word Incorporated. They had a large book division, as well as a music division. And they had some of the most talented Christian artists of the day. Artists such as Larry Norman, distributed his music through them, Phil Keaggy, Second Chapter of Acts, Barry McGuire, and others as well. So I, I worked with Word in the music division for four years. And I found that to be satisfying in some respects, but in others not so much.

Now, I was traveling all over the south at the time interacting with a very, very wide range of Christians, professing Christians, some of whom were very impressive. Others, not so much. But it did very much expand my horizons, as far as the Christian demographics, you might say, in America. So I never, of course, became an ex, exvangelical, to use the term that you used a minute or so ago. But I did spend several years searching for what I thought were more credible expressions of true Christianity. I certainly was never a liberal, or a progressive, either in my faith or in my politics. I always knew that what we call liberalism today, in other words, modern liberalism, was really just the political ideology of a secular humanistic philosophy. And that was, that was totally unappealing to me. But for several years, I was involved in several groups that had a left wing orientation. Many would have described themselves probably as Christian socialists. Now, I probably would have characterized myself at the time as a socialist Christian, keeping the proper noun being Christian and socialist only as an adjective. But only because I believe that the early church, at least the Jerusalem church, that we read about in the book of Acts, practiced communitarian values. But the early church if you want to describe it, or characterize it as moderately socialistic, to use modern terminology, the early church really practiced voluntary socialism, or voluntary communalism out of a sincere love for others, which is totally different, of course from secular political socialism, which is government mandated. It's always invariably coercive and involuntary. So, political socialism inevitably leads to authoritarianism, in which the government attempts to control virtually every aspect of our lives. It also limits our free expression, including the free expression of our Christian faith. And socialism is certainly antithetical to religious liberty. So I felt at the time that I did need to broaden my perspective on Christian discipleship. And more liberal, or left wing, Christian groups, and enterprises, I felt like was something that I seriously needed to check out.

WS: So you started reading and communicating with people like Ron Sider, who wrote a very influential book called Rich Christians In An Age of Hunger, who, by the way, I've had on this podcast, by the way. An also, the Sojourners movement, which was fairly new at that point. They published a magazine, Sojourners Magazine, and you had your own Christian publication in Atlanta for a while.

JB: Yes, it was in the early 1980s. Actually, I had just returned to graduate school to study history at Georgia State University. But I founded a publication called Crossroads: an Atlanta Christian Forum. And we took a position that might be described as perhaps mildly Christian left wing in that regard. And I did have the opportunity during those years to interact with a lot of the, a lot of the more public faces and leaders in the Christian left. I was offered a job actually with Ron Sider’s organization, Evangelicalism for Social Action, they were based in Germantown, Pennsylvania, just a little north of downtown Philadelphia. And I admired Ron and believed that he was sincere and a credible Christian. There were others, however, in the Christian left that very quickly I had suspicions about. So many of these people seem to me to be considerably more socialistic than they were ‘Christianistic,’ if I can use that term.

WS: Sure.

JB: And so I felt like over the years, I came to see a lot of the fallacies in that whole movement. And eventually, I was drawn back into a more conservative orientation in most every regards. As I thought about these things, over time thought about them more deeply and also taught on political science as well as history in my career as a, as a history professor.

WS: Hold on a second. Jefrey, I'm have a something happened here to my recorder. And I just don't know what happened. But it stopped recording. Fortunately, this is a backup that and not the main thing. So okay. Let me

JB: Now, should I also mention that I would have totally lost my faith if had I not met you in Sunday school?

WS: Yeah, no, yeah. Do not say that. No, I do. Do I do want to. Okay, but by the way, Johnny, we're off. We're off the record now that you can cut all this out. But I'm about to go back on. Are you ready? Jeffrey, can I go back on this?

WS: Well, Jeffrey, I do want to sort of close our conversation with what you are doing now. But before we do that, there are a couple of little anecdotes that I'd like to hit you with. One is, you describe in your book, and I may have heard you describe this in person at some point, I don't remember now. An encounter you had with Keith Green that while you were working for, I think it was while you're working for Sparrow Records. It may have been while you were still at Capitol, where you when you left Capitol to go to work for Sparrow. You were kind of hoping that you were, you know, leaving Egypt for the promised land. And you found out.

JB: Oh, when I left Capital, I actually went to work for Word. Okay. And then, two years later with Sparrow Okay, here we go, sorry to interrupt.

WS: Yeah, no, that's good. Okay, Johnny, we're here we go. We're starting all over again.

WS: Jeffrey, I do want to sort of land this plane and bring our conversation to a conclusion by, you know, talking about what you're doing now. But before we leave this era of your life, I want to, I can't resist asking you about a couple of anecdotes that are alluded to in your book. I may have heard you talk about them face to face at some point. With Capitol Records, you were kind of hoping to go into a Christian label, first Word and then Sparrow, might kind of give you the best of both worlds. It would give you, you know, kind of what you loved about the music business, and, you know, the creativity and all of that, but doing it in a Christian environment. Over time, my understanding from reading you and from talking to you is that you became, I guess, a little bit disillusioned with the, you know, the commercialism of even Christian music. And that may have led to your, some of your forays into Christian socialism, just kind of testing out what else might be an option. But you had an encounter with Keith Green, who I think a lot of our listeners are going to know. And a lot of listeners are going to know that he also had some really serious concerns about the Christian music industry. Can you say a little more about that?

JB: Well, I interacted with Keith on on just a few occasions. I didn't know him real well, but we corresponded. Keith, as you said, was very concerned about the commercialization of Christian music and going back to the early 1970s, when Larry Norman and Randy Stonehill, and people like that emerged, singing folk rock style music that had Christian lyrics, biblical lyrics. That was quite unusual at the time. Now later, that Jesus music, of course, will morph into what became known as contemporary Christian music. It became an industry unto itself. This was troublesome to Keith. He didn't believe that the gospel should be so aggressively marketed. Nor did I, for that matter. So I was always a little out of sync even with the company that I was representing. But when I finally resigned from Sparrow Records to return to graduate school and study history, I remember sharing my thoughts with Keith and he sent me a very nice letter, encouraging me to do just that. He was very concerned about some of those tendencies in the Christian book and music industry itself.

WS: Yeah. Well, of course, that's been a concern of mine as well. I remember, I wrote I wrote a book back in 2009, called The Lover's Quarrel With The Evangelical Church that you read and were generous enough to invite me to Atlanta to speak to the Areopagus Forum at that time, and I guess that would be nearly 15 years ago now. By the way, I'm working on a revised version of that book. So that sort of segues me though, Jeffrey, a bit into what you're doing now. I mentioned the Areopagus Forum. Many of our listeners who are Christians will know of course that the Areopagus was also known as Mars Hill. It was where Paul made his famous Acts 17 speech, from which you derive the name of the Areopagus Form, of course. What are you trying to accomplish with the Areopagus Forum? What are your kind of day to day activities and by what are you trying to accomplish? I mean, sort of the big picture, what's your vision or mission? And then what do you do? How do you accomplish that vision on a sort of day to day boots on the ground kind of way?

JB: Yeah. Thank you. I appreciate that question in particular. Yeah, for 20 years, I was a history professor mostly at Georgia State University. My, by the way, my doctoral studies concentrated on two areas of history. One was modern U.S. history, so as to try and make sense of the ‘60s. And the other area was actually ancient history, philosophy, and religion due to my interest in early church history. And I also, of course, taught church history at Atlanta Christian College and Reformed Theological Seminary. But I left the university and began the Areopagus in 2003. And, as you mentioned, the Areopagus is a term that's pretty familiar to most people who are familiar with the book of Acts. Acts chapter 17, in particular. And of course, the apostle Paul visited the Areopagus, where he testified his faith in Christ and really planted the seed of Christianity there in Athens. Now, throughout Christian history that name Areopagus has oftentimes represented the intersection of Christian faith and culture. And that's why I chose that particular name for our particular ministry. Ours is basically a forum for the exchange of ideas. Now, today in America, of course, we realize that we are in the midst of a culture, of a culture that's increasingly skeptical, if not outright hostile toward Christian faith and values. And the erosion of Christian influence in our society is apparent in in virtually every area of of life today, from law and politics to business, education, the media, certainly the arts and entertainment, certainly in public and private morality, as well. So the Areopagus is essentially a Christian education ministry. We're based in the Greater Atlanta area. We offer seminars and forums on issues relevant to contemporary Christian life. We always say that our mission fundamentally is this - and that's to help Christians effectively engage our society and culture with the life transforming truth and love of Jesus Christ. And so, to that end, we offer substantive seminar courses and topical forums that would challenge Christians to live in accord with the principles and the practices of a holistic, comprehensive, Biblical worldview. So we, we have a website at www.theareopagus.org. We also have a Facebook page. And by the way, we also have a newsletter that we send out periodically that's devoted to significant issues and events. We call it The Watchman. And oftentimes, we will reference some of the articles that you featured in MinistryWatch.

WS: Wo you can't you can't get out of the publication business can you?

JB: Well, it's, it's not only a passion, it's, it's truly a calling. Yeah. And I, I've written several books. Probably...

WS: Well, you know, it's interesting to me, and I'm sure you know, this, Jefrey, that the Areopagus figures prominently in Acts 17. And, obviously, the word from which you derive your name. But the, also John Milton wrote a famous essay, I think I'm gonna pronounce it right, the Areopagittica, I think, I think that's the way it's pronounced. It was a kind of a Reformation era document. And it was a defense of free speech. It was really one of the first modern documents defending free speech. It's interesting to me that he called it the Areopagittica, because he made the observation in that document that Paul was not only preaching the gospel, but he was also appealing to the authorities for religious liberty and freedom of speech. He was basically, you know, saying, I have the right to stand here and proclaim this God in whom I believe, this unnamed God. So it's kind of interesting how the confluence of these, religious liberty and freedom of speech, and the proclamation of the gospel are so closely intertwined in that one word, Areopagus kind of, encapsulates all of that.

JB: Yes, it's been a very useful term, basically taking the gospel message in the public, dealing with serious issues, be they religious, spiritual issues, moral, cultural issues, and basically just the fulfilling our mission to to adopt a comprehensive understanding of Christian discipleship. This fall, I'll be doing a course that will be focused on the life and works of Francis Schaeffer. And of course, Francis Schaeffer was one of those who kept calling us back to a comprehensive understanding of Christian discipleship in contrast of what he called pietism, which is this very narrow, limited understanding or view of Christian discipleship. And so we try to incorporate those kinds of themes and that kind of a broad based approach in our ministry.

WS: Yeah. Well, Jeffrey, we've got to bring our time to a close. And we've we really haven't talked specifically much about your book, even though your story is in chapter seven and eight of your book. And the ideas that we talked about are what energize your book, what innervate, your book, you might say. But what do you want people to get out of the book? Why should people read this book?

JB: Well, I think it's an extremely relevant book for our time. It's an analysis basically, of the origins and the manifestations and the consequences of America's culture war that's raging today, and what Christians can and what Christians should be doing in response. So I'd say that basically, the purpose of the book is to reveal and analyze the great spiritual, moral, and cultural challenges that we face today as American Christians. It also explores the historical and philosophical origins for our culture war, exposes the the consequences of the erosion of Christian influences in our society. And in addition to that, we also challenge Christians to become better informed, more actively engaged in these great issues of our time, so that we can truly fulfill our mission to be a source of light and love and hope and truth in the midst of a society and a culture that's rapidly disintegrating and descending into more and more spiritual darkness.

You’ve been listening in on my conversation with Dr. Jefrey Breshears. His new book is American Crisis: Cultural Marxism and the Culture War: A Christian Response. He spoke to me from his office in Atlanta.

Listening In comes to you from WORLD News Group, and this program is just one of the many benefits that comes with a WORLD subscription. To find out more visit WNG.org/subscribe.

Tune in next week to hear my conversation with Roland Warren. He’s the president of CareNet, one of the largest networks of pregnancy resource centers in the nation, with more than 1,200 affiliates. When the Dobbs decision was announced, the decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Roland Warren was one of the first calls I made. His insights about the future of the prolife movement will both encourage and challenge you. I hope you’ll tune in.

The producer for today’s program is Leigh Jones. Johnny Franklin is the technical producer. And Paul Butler is executive producer for WORLD Radio. I’m your host, Warren Smith. And you’ve been Listening In….


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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