The ostrich with his head in the sand is the usual picture we get of cultural indifference. This image assumes the ostrich knows there’s a problem and by hiding his eyes, the problem will go away. I believe a more accurate illustration is based on an old Chinese proverb that goes like this: “If you want to know what water is, don’t ask a fish.” Never having experienced another environment, a fish lacks the ability to see differences in his environment; it has no knowledge of an alternative world. The fish’s only reference point is water and what swims with him in the same fish bowl.

It’s possible that we are too close to our own culture to make the necessary distinctions to bring about changes. “Culture is like the air with breathe,” Charles Sherlock, author of The Doctrine of Humanity, argues. “Unless we are ill or are making a deliberate attempt to concentrate on it, breathing is something we take for granted. So it is with culture; unless we deliberately focus upon it, or move to live in another culture, we are largely unaware that we are ‘cultured.’”

Cornelius Van Til had two apt illustrations to explain the difficulty in realizing how we have become part of the corrupting culture and how difficult it is to break free because we can’t see well enough to make the necessary distinctions to make the break. He argued that it was like a man made of water who tries to climb out of a pit of water using a ladder constructed of water.[1] He used a similar illustration to make the same point. It’s like a man with yellow glasses cemented to his face—“all is yellow to the jaundiced eye.”[2] There is no way to get any footing, especially when the tinted glasses we’re wearing mollify the edges of the place we need to stand to separate us from the pit of water.

Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), theologian, statesman, journalist, and Prime Minister of the Netherlands (1901–1905), directs Christians to stand against the pull of the modern culture that wants to make us a willing partner to its attractive lure: “When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, that battle is your calling, and peace has become sin. You must at the price of dearest peace lay your conviction bare before friend and enemy, with all the fire of your faith.”

Martin Luther (1483–1546) offered similar advice: “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest expression every portion of the truth of God, except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I might be confessing Christ.” But how do we know what that particular point is? It takes practice by a constant appeal to an outside reference point (Heb. 5:12–14).

Luther got out of his fish-bowl world when he read and understood the following from the book of Romans: “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:17). The world did not change, but Luther’s understanding of it did, and it made all the difference in the world.

Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955), 102. A revised and abridged edition was issued in 1963. This refer­ence is to the more accessible 1963 edition.
[2] Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 77, 231. On Van Til’s use of analogies, see John Frame, “Van Til”