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Five Inescapable Questions

The Magnetic Points for Cultural Engagement

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Guest Contributor

ABSTRACT: The “Five Points of Magnetism” articulated by the twentieth-century missionary theologian J.H. Bavinck serve as a grid for understanding human cultures in every age. Formed in the image of God, humans necessarily ask the same basic questions about who they are and how they fulfill their place in the world. The gospel of Christ answers those questions and fulfills every longing. Learning to recognize these questions can help pastors serve their people in preaching and counseling, as well as empower them to offer a compelling witness to the world.

If you knew me, you would know that I have not been gifted with the body of a climber. However, a few years ago I became somewhat obsessed with the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, which captures Alex Honnold’s breathtaking ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park: 2,900 feet (884 meters) in 3 hours and 56 minutes without any ropes or safety aids. In parts of the climb, the rock face appears so vertical and smooth that it seems impossible for Honnold to get a grip (could he really be Spiderman?). On closer inspection, though, we discover indentations, nubs, and abrasions, however small, that Honnold uses creatively, not to mention with great effort and patience, to get traction and continue his journey to the top.

Engaging late-modern culture, and indeed any culture, in terms of our pastoring, preaching, and persuasion can seem as if we’re trying to climb a sheet of glass. We may not like to admit it, but we often struggle to get traction, to understand and connect with people where they really are — their hopes, dreams, and fears. It can feel as if we’re losing our grip and slipping down. How do we get traction given such pervasive uninterest and even antagonism?

As evangelical Christians, however, getting traction is not our only concern, and this is where my Free Solo illustration breaks down. Alex Honnold is not to be our example. There’s a tragic montage in Free Solo that shows how many of Alex’s friends in the free-solo climbing community have fallen to their deaths. Free soloing is absolute madness. Yes, we want to get traction, but we also know we need to be tethered. Our ministry, in all its facets, if it is to be truly life-giving, must be tethered to Christ and his word. This is where we find not only safety and security, but also sight. Far from being restricting, such tethering gives us confidence, freedom, and imagination to get traction in whatever cultural context the Lord has placed us because we learn from God’s word that there is always a point of contact to confront and call our culture to come to Christ.

Seeing Culture Through Scripture

What I’ve said so far is nothing original. The swirl and interplay between our confession and our context — and to which I would add our character — are perennial issues in theology and missiology that can discombobulate and paralyze. Which theory of “contextualization” can we understand, let alone utilize? How do we have the time and energy to keep up with the constant shape-shifting of cultural trends and artifacts? Do all pastors today need PhDs in the sociology of religion and an intricate theory of secularization?

To aid our progress, I have found the Dutch Reformed missiologist J.H. Bavinck (1895–1974), the nephew of Herman Bavinck, to be an expert guide in helping us gain traction while remaining securely tethered: exegeting culture through the exegesis of Scripture.1 In this essay, I outline Bavinck’s theological anthropology in his understanding of humanity’s religious consciousness, unpacked in what he calls the “magnetic points,” which are subversively fulfilled in Jesus Christ. I then apply this to our pastoring, preaching, and persuasion.

The ‘Perilous Exchange’

To unpack what it means for humanity to be religiously conscious, Bavinck focuses his attention on Romans 1:18–32. In the cosmic game of hide-and-seek, Bavinck says, God is not the one hiding. He has made himself known in everything he has created, with the climax of creation being his image bearers. This revealing is dynamic, personal, and relational. More than most commentators on this seminal passage, Bavinck unpacks the revelation of God’s “invisible qualities” (Romans 1:20 NIV). God’s “eternal power” notes our creaturely dependence on our Creator.2 His “divine nature” recognizes our personal accountability to a Someone — the Someone — rather than a “something” or an “It.”3 Dependence and accountability are hardwired into human beings (something to which we’ll shortly return).

What do we do with this personal knowledge? In the game played out since Eden, we are the ones who try to hide. We suppress the truth and try to drown it, and with that choice comes a “perilous exchange”4 where we idolatrously substitute all kinds of created things for the uncreated God in the foolish attempt to extricate “eternal power” and “divine nature” from them.

This suppression and substitution of revealed truth can be hard to understand, but Bavinck offers a memorable illustration in the metaphor of a dream, or better still, a nightmare. In a nightmare, the phenomena we experience in reality during the day are ripped out of their original contexts and become grotesque — twisted and distorted new ideas and fantasies. This whole process makes up what Bavinck calls humanity’s universal “religious consciousness.” We are God’s image bearers built for worship, and yet we have rebelled against our Creator. We know God and so are without excuse, but we are also ignorant of him. We are running to him and away from him at the same time. This is the dignity and depravity of our humanity.

This messy mix is what I believe Paul is getting at in Acts 17 when he calls the Athenians “very religious” and points to their unknown god. He’s not commending their idolatry (he’s been deeply distressed, notes their ignorance, and will call them to repentance), but he starts where they are, recognizing their need for worship as a point of contact (or better, attack).

Five Magnetic Points

Bavinck’s experience on the mission field in Indonesia and then back in a theological seminary in the Netherlands led him to unpack this religious consciousness. Yes, different religions and worldviews are vastly different, and yet, he writes,

There seems to be a kind of framework within which human religions need to operate. There appear to be definite points of contact around which all kinds of ideas crystallize. There seem to be quite vague feelings — one might better call them direction signals that have been actively brooding everywhere. . . . Perhaps this can be expressed thus: there seem to be definite magnetic points that time and again irresistibly compel human religious thought. Human beings cannot escape their power but must provide an answer to those basic questions posed to them.5

These “magnetic points,” fashioned from our distortions of God’s “eternal power” and “divine nature” (which stress our creaturely accountability), can manifest themselves in a multitude of mutations, but “since they are rooted in our existence, they are stronger than ourselves, and somehow we must come to grips with them.”6 Even if these points are never consciously articulated, human beings still answer them by “their entire conduct” and “attitude to life”: their “whole way of living already implies an answer, and is an answer.”7 These are the itches that we have to scratch, even if they just lead to more irritation.

Bavinck notes that there are five of these magnetic points, each offering a perspective on the one religious consciousness. The following is my own summary of them.8

1. Totality: Is there a way to connect?

All humans have an innate sense of totality and connection that shapes our identity. On the one hand, we often feel so small and insignificant, just specks in the vast universe with no value or worth, and treated as such. Any yet, when we connect with something or someone(s) bigger, we find significance through belonging and enjoy communal awareness. Therefore, we crave connection, often feel abandoned after we’ve experienced it, and crave for it again and again.

2. Norm: Is there a way to live?

We have a vague sense there are rules to be obeyed. People recognize and accept moral standards and codes that come from outside them and to which they must adhere. This knowledge brings with it a sense of responsibility to live up to those norms. Even groups that seek to be countercultural have their own set of rules of nonconformity.

3. Deliverance: Is there a way out?

We know something is wrong with the world. There is finitude, brokenness, and wrongdoing, and the problems of suffering and death consistently confront us. We mourn for some kind of paradise lost and long for deliverance from these evils, craving redemption. And yet, we can’t agree on what our ultimate problem is, let alone whether there is a solution that would deliver us.

4. Destiny: Is there a way we control?

Although we know ourselves to be active players in the world, we have a nagging feeling that we are also passive participants in somebody else’s world. We both lead and undergo our lives. Sometimes we feel confident that we are masters of our destiny with agency and power to determine reality. Other times we feel restricted and trapped with no agency, like pawns in a cosmic game of chess or puppets on a string. We’re victims. We oscillate between these two moods, and cannot settle and find cognitive or existential rest.

5. Higher Power: Is there a way beyond?

This is the meta-magnetic point on which all the others converge. Humans perceive that behind all reality, beyond the veil, stands a great reality. The deeper we look to find connection, discover the norm, search for deliverance, and relate to our destiny, the more we come to the question of a higher power. But what is it? Who is it?

These, then, are the magnetic points that make up our religious consciousness, all formed from the anthropological clay of Romans 1 and the broader theological anthropology of Scripture. In Bavinck’s life and ministry, the phenomena before him (with which he used this framework) were what we might call recognized religious traditions and worldviews. And such analysis in cross-cultural settings is as relevant then as it is now.

However, I believe this anthropological framework, these five magnetic points, are just as relevant in our late-modern, post-Christian Western context. These magnetic points can be the lens through which we start to read our culture. They can help us connect with those around us who are scratching their “very religious” itches.9 They can be the magnetic poles we use to orient wandering souls to True North.

One Magnetic Person

Using this framework enables us to connect and confront our culture with the Lord Jesus Christ. In him, all the magnetic points are yes and amen. He is where the traction lies. The gospel of Christ confronts and subverts idolatrous religious consciousness and its historical manifestations, but it also provides its fulfillment. As we observe in 1 Corinthians 1, Christ crucified confronts all idolatrous cultural stories (1 Corinthians 1:20–25). It’s foolish and scandalous to Jews (who look for power) and to Greeks (who look for wisdom). And yet, to those who are being saved, Jesus is the power and is the wisdom that completes these stories (and the myriad of other stories we tell).

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the subversive fulfillment of the magnetic points. He is the magnetic Person that we present to people. In the cosmic game of hide-and-seek, where God is not hiding but we, Jesus, the light of the world, pierces the darkness. He is the greatest seeker who comes to seek and save the lost. (I can only present the barest pencil outline here. I will leave it to you to color in these points with the boldest and richest gospel colors.)

First, Jesus is the subversive fulfillment of totality (the way to connect). The beautiful doctrine of the image of God affirms both our insignificance (we are not God) and our significance (we are images of God). We are Adam — ones “from the earth” — and so our need for connection is natural. And yet, we are disconnected: from ourselves, each other, the creation, and (most of all) the Creator, against whom we have rebelled. Being connected to this world means being connected to a world that is under judgment and is perishing.

Jesus, the Second Adam, offers a new kingdom into which we enter by repentance and faith. Entering this kingdom requires death and sacrifice but not a loss of self in terms of individuality and responsibility. Rather, it brings rebirth and resurrection, communion with God in our union with Christ and community in the body of Christ, the church.10

Second, Jesus is the subversive fulfillment of the norm (the way to live). Jesus offers himself as both the standard and the Savior. In following Jesus, people come to see that God’s unchanging holy law is for our flourishing. Yet, he offers compassion to the outcast and marginalized, and he hates religious hypocrisy.

Third, Jesus is the subversive fulfillment of deliverance (the way out). The war between ourselves, within ourselves, and with our environment has a root cause: our enmity with God. We face his righteous wrath and an eternity in hell. Deliverance can be found only through one Mediator, the God-man Jesus Christ — and through him alone. In him there is not only escape but restoration and eternal blessing.

Fourth, Jesus is the subversive fulfillment of destiny (the way of control). Our world is not governed by blind fate or malevolent forces but by a sovereign God who is Lord over all creation, both natural and supernatural. This sovereignty does not take away human freedom but is its precondition. Christian destiny is liberating and joyful.

Finally, Jesus is the subversive fulfillment of the higher power (the way beyond). We do not worship a non-Absolute deity or an impersonal force, but a Someone, maximally Absolute and maximally Personal, who is both transcendent and immanent, Judge and Savior. We worship One who has reached down to us in grace, the Word made flesh.

Many Magnetic People

Now that we have considered the five magnetic points and the one magnetic person, Jesus Christ, how might we utilize this framework in our ministry and mission?

Pastor Toward the Magnetic Person

First, in our pastoring. Our evangelism and apologetics flow from our discipleship. In 1883, Charles Spurgeon preached a sermon on John 12:32 titled “The Marvelous Magnet.” He said,

All the magnetism comes from the first place from which it started, and when it ceases at the fountainhead there is an end of it altogether. Indeed, Jesus Christ is the great attractive magnet, and all must begin and end with Him. . . . Thus from one to another the mystic influence proceeds, but the whole of the force abides in Jesus. More and more the kingdom grows, “ever mighty to prevail,” but all the growing and the prevailing come out of Him. So it is that Jesus works — first by Himself, and then by all who are in Him. May the Lord make us all magnets for Himself.11

A teacher wrote to me recently about this quotation and gave me a physics lesson. Some materials can become magnetic when placed in a magnetic field, as they are made up of lots of regions called “domains,” which are essentially “mini-magnets.” When not in the magnetic field, they align randomly and cancel each other out so that there is no overall magnetic field. But in the presence of an external magnetic field, these domains align so that, instead of canceling each other out, their strengths combine to make the material magnetic.

Our hearts are like the unmagnetized material: we are fragmented. Our inner desires, commitments, loves, emotions, and beliefs are attracted by all sorts of created things. We have divided hearts (Psalm 86:11). What we need is to be close to Christ. As we behold his glory (2 Corinthians 3:18), spending time in his magnetic field, all our fragmented “mini-magnets” become attracted to him and start to align. He makes us magnetic.

We are either being formed by Christ or being deformed by something or someone else. If we are not being drawn to Christ, we are being drawn away by something else. The magnetic points serve as a helpful diagnostic tool as we pastor ourselves and those in our care. Where are our hearts seeking connections, norms, deliverances, destinies, and higher powers that are not in Christ?

The question then becomes, How are we to stay properly magnetized? The extraordinarily ordinary answer is, of course, by loving Jesus and loving his body, the church, through which the Holy Spirit re-magnetizes us each week, and sends us out on mission and into our God-given vocations. May the Lord make us all magnets for himself!

Preach with the Magnetic Points

Second, in our preparation for preaching. To connect every aspect of their sermons to the lives of the people in their churches, the Puritans used preaching grids that helped map out particular sermon applications. The magnetic points can function in a similar fashion, acting as a bridge to connect our preaching to the lives and concerns of our listeners. Because they are a way of understanding the Bible’s own anthropology, using them as an application grid is not an artificial imposition on the text. Because they are part of who we are, we can’t avoid touching on these themes.

Preachers don’t have to explain the magnetic points in their sermons. Like the scaffold in a building project, such a grid is temporary and won’t be on display in the final product. But the magnetic points do provide a useful grid as we aim to present Christ in our preaching as the fulfillment of our deepest longings.

Persuade with Magnetic Spaces

Third, in our persuasion. As I’ve already noted, the magnetic points provide a helpful framework for connecting with the non-Christians God has placed in our lives in a natural but intentional way.12 Sometimes this occurs in more direct and immediate evangelistic engagement. However, given our increasingly post-Christian culture — which is frantic, fractured, and polarized — civil dialogue and conversation is becoming more difficult. How do we even create opportunities to speak of Christ where people will genuinely listen and engage? Increasingly, some relationships call for a longer “run up.”

Among many steps churches could take, we could consider creating “magnetic spaces,” places where people can pause in the journey of life, gaining some relief from the storm. Like the ancient hospiciums, which before the nineteenth century were not places for the dying but rest houses for travelers, such spaces could provide relief from the storms of life and opportunities to reflect on the many issues people face. A magnetic space could be a book or film club, a regular meeting of parents or businessmen, a sports ministry, a mental-health discussion group, or more.

It should be noted that such magnetic spaces would not be guilty of what can be called bait-and-switch tactics. While each magnetic space is built by a local church, every space would be happily self-contained with an integrity of purpose in serving the community (for example, to produce better leaders, parents, or mental health) and in fostering and promoting civility. We would love all citizens in our hostile and fractious culture to be learning a convicted civility that combines a civil outlook with a passionate intensity, and where there is improved self-understanding, awareness, and listening. We might call this pre-pre-evangelism.

However, we need to note that helping people think through issues of life through the magnetic points serves the gospel by helping people uncover their own ultimate heart commitments. As Isaiah says in his great satire of idolatry, the problem with the idolater is that “no one stops to think” (Isaiah 44:18–19 NIV). Magnetic spaces would be places to get people to stop and think about their commitments and the objects of their worship. By God’s Spirit, they may begin to see the futility of lives not built on Christ, the only one who can give us connection, norm, deliverance, and destiny.

In other words, conversational difference creates the space and the platform for conversional difference. We might call this pre-evangelism. At this point, the churches that built the spaces are open and welcoming for those who want to hear more about Christ being the subversive fulfillment of their idolatrous longings.

Traction and Tethering

Tackling pastoring, preaching, and persuasion in our late-modern culture can seem as daunting, dizzying, and arduous as one of Alex Honnold’s vertiginous climbs. However, the magnetic points can provide both the traction and the tethering we need to make it to the top. Yes, such climbing requires creativity, imagination, and stamina, but we aren’t climbing solo. We have God’s Spirit with us, and we trust what God’s word says about the religious nature of all human beings, our security as Christian disciples, and the magnetism of the Lord Jesus Christ. What an exciting adventure to be part of.

  1. For an introduction to Bavinck’s life and work, see Paul J. Visser, “Introduction: The Life and Thought of Johan Herman Bavinck,” in The J.H. Bavinck Reader, ed. John Bolt, James D. Bratt, and Paul J. Visser, trans. James A. De Jong (Grands Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 1–92. 

  2. J.H. Bavinck, “Religious Consciousness and Christian Faith,” in The J.H. Bavinck Reader, 243. 

  3. Bavinck, “Religious Consciousness,” 281. 

  4. J.H. Bavinck, The Church Between Temple and Mosque (Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2023), 118. 

  5. Bavinck, “Religious Consciousness,” 226–27. 

  6. Bavinck, The Church, 26. 

  7. Bavinck, The Church, 28. 

  8. These are expanded upon much more fully in Daniel Strange, Making Faith Magnetic: Five Hidden Themes Our Culture Can’t Stop Talking About — And How to Connect Them to Christ (Epsom, UK: The Good Book Company, 2021). 

  9. In fact, this is where several sociologists of religion and cultural commentators confirm (explicitly or implicitly) this anthropology. It is worth reading and engaging with them in our ministry. For example, in her excellent ethnographic study Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (New York: PublicAffairs, 2020), Tara Isabella Burton, while recognizing that the religious “Nones” (i.e., those who don’t consider themselves to be members of any traditional, organized religion) are “the single biggest religious demographic in America, as well as the fastest-growing one,” demonstrates that closer investigation shows that nearly three-quarters of this group are neither atheist nor even agnostic, but instead believe in something. Burton includes the Nones as part of a broader category she labels the “Remixed.” The Remixed are functionally religious in the intuitional rather than the institutional sense, neglecting the church (or other religious institution) while still looking for meaning, purpose, community, and rituals. We’re in magnetic-point territory here: “People of the West, I see you are very religious!” It should come as no surprise that Burton’s study maps onto Bavinck’s magnetic points. They’re everywhere, of course, because there are human beings everywhere. 

  10. For more on this point, see Daniel Strange, “The Magnetic Person: The Doctrine of Missions,” in Theology for Ministry, ed. William R. Edwards, John C.A. Ferguson, and Chad Van Dixhoorn (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2022), 471–88; Daniel Strange, “An Apology for Elenctics: The Unmasking of Sin in the Retrieval of a Theological Discipline,” in Ruined Sinners to Reclaim: Sin and Depravity in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, eds. David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2024); Strange, Making Faith Magnetic

  11. Charles Spurgeon, “The Marvelous Magnet,” in Spurgeon’s Sermons, vol. 29 (1883), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/spurgeon/sermons29.xx.html. 

  12. For help on how to begin exegeting culture apologetically, see Daniel Strange, Plugged In: Connecting Your Faith to What You Watch, Read, and Play (Epsom, UK: Good Book Company, 2019). 

is Director of Crosslands Forum, a center for cultural engagement and missional innovation. He is a contributing editor for Themelios and a Fellow of The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. Dan is married with seven children and is an elder at Hope Community Church, Gateshead, UK.