James writes this, "Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God." (James 4:4) From the founding of the church, it has always existed in conflict with the surrounding culture. Even in Jerusalem, the religious leaders condemned and imprisoned the apostles. It was by this official and cultural persecution that the church expanded into Samaria, Antioch, and the rest of the Roman world. Quickly, the center of the church left Jerusalem to become more diffused before settling in Rome. Even in the Middle Ages, when Christendom became the norm for the western world, the faithful church remained in conflict with the remnant superstitions of the people. The Reformation brought the faithful church into conflict with the Roman Catholic culture that surrounded it. The early immigrants to the United States came to escape the cultural oppression of the church. As the country formed, while there remained a majority of Judeo-Christian assumptions, many of the formative thinkers of the nation did not profess the true faith.
The church ever lives in conflict with the culture of the world. Paul reminds us of our duty in his letter to the church at Rome. "And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God." (Romans 12:2) The world, the culture, the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group, because this mass of humanity is broken by sin, their dispositions, attitudes, morals, and values all reflect their sinful origins. For this reason, the Bible commands us to guard ourselves against allowing the world to influence us to think and act sinfully. We face the temptation to conform our morals, values, and attitudes to what we see in society.
How ought the Christian to interact with culture? This question formed the basis for H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic book, Christ and Culture. In it, he mapped in history five different approaches to the question.
1. Christ against Culture
The approach seems to have been the original view. The world is evil. The Bible warns the Christian against allowing it to inform our understanding. Culture, as a product of the sinful world system has nothing to offer the believer. The best option then is isolation from culture.
This idea still has its adherents in some form or fashion. Monasticism is the most obvious and extreme version. Others practice some form of protectionism, at least for their children, forbidding access to the obvious influencers of culture, music, movies, television, news, radio, art, and books. A more refined and influential, at least in the reformed community, version of this appears in the so-called "Benedict Option," popularized by Rob Dreher in his book of the same name. In it, he argues that the post-christian world has progressed to such a deplorable state, that engagement with the culture is no longer effective. He compares our present to the final days of the Roman Empire and the need to protect Christianity through the use of monasteries. While stopping short of total monasticism, he proposes isolating Christian enclaves in which a Christian culture can be nurtured in contrast to the world.
2. Christ of culture
Of this view, not much need be said. It represents the viewpoint of liberal theology. Had not Niebuhr been a member of this school, it would probably not have made the list as an acceptable Christian view. This view posits that God made culture, therefor culture is good. Providence directs culture as part of general revelation to show us how we ought to live. Therefor, the church ought to assume the direction of culture to be a good one. This may be behind the Roman Catholic use of syncretism.
3. Christ above culture - medieval Roman Catholicism
Of all the views, this mediating view appeared and thrived in the middle ages. The Roman Catholic view of the two swords argued that one sword was given to the church and another was given to the state. In practice, both swords came from the church as the pope considered his office above that of the king. The most obvious event that proclaimed the churches power was the humiliation of Canossa, where the Holy Roman Emperor was forced to await an audience with the pope for three days and nights in the snow, in January 1077.
The church assumed not only superiority over the king, but over culture as well. This led to so-called "power encounters" used in mission. One well-known example of this superiority involved the felling of Jove's Oak/Donar's Oak/Thor's Oak somewhere in Hesse, Germany. According to an 8th century work, Vita Bonifatii auctore Willibaldi, a Catholic missionary, St. Boniface, cut down the tree to prove the superiority of Catholic culture to the German. Oddly, Catholic missionaries to Latin America would later prefer syncretism to this approach.
4. Christ and culture in paradox - Luther/Kierkegaard
The use of the term "paradox" informs us that this perspective can be rather confusing. It ought not surprise us that its notable adherents Niebuhr credits to Martin Luther and Soren Kierkegaard. These preferred paradox, leaving unresolved truths hostile to one another. Like, law and grace, saint and sinner, Christ and culture function within the church simultaneously. Don't try to make hard and fast decision. Just live in the tension.
5. Christ the transformer of culture
This view is often credited to John Calvin and the Reformers. There is a puritan air to this view. As such, it became the default framework for the Presbyterian and Reformed interaction with culture. Culture, as a product of the social function of humans, as part of our creation in the image of God, is a good thing. As communities, we form societies and culture. This is not wrong, but part of our creation. The problem is that sin has corrupted the good thing God created. Culture, like all other parts of humanity needs to be redeemed. Christ, by redeeming people is redeeming culture. This is not the primary goal of the church. Rather, the organization of God's body works to make Christians. Christians living in culture influence it in redemptive ways. This indicates that Christians ought to participate in culture in meaningful ways to participate in this redemptive work.
While this fifth description become the assumption of the reformed church, some have questioned the taxonomy of Niebuhr. D.A. Carson wrote the book Christ and Culture Revisited. In it he questioned Niebuhr's assumptions. The framework leaves unanswered questions. What is Christ? What is culture? Are these the only five options? He argued that a biblical theological approach that remains flexible ought to determine the Christian's engagement with the world. The Bible, not a general rule, must govern the specific way in which we respond to culture.
There is no simplistic answer to the question of how we deal with culture. While we may generally prefer the fifth, this preference has led some to inappropriate engagement with culture. It has led to too much engagement that either ends up looking like the second option, carelessly accepting culture, or a form of the third, advocating a superior alternative culture. These simple approaches forget the purpose for engaging with culture in the first place.
Why ought the Christian engage with culture? If culture is stained with sin, broken by mankind's fallenness, or at worst totally corrupt, why should the Christian deal with it at all? Are the Benedict Option and monastic advocates right? Should we isolate ourselves from the brokenness? This approach clashes with the Bible's command to engage with the world. Matthew 28:18-20 "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." John 17:15-16 "I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world." The testimony of the Bible reminds us that Jesus left us here to testify to the world, not to retreat from it.
If we are to meaningfully witness to the world, we must be able to understand and speak to its culture. Culture has a profound impact on the language the people speak, the stories they believe, the things they value, and the questions they ask. Ignorance of these things leads us to speak without understanding, a futile message. We will be speaking a different language, one our listeners will not understand.
In order to understand culture, we must first recognize that speaking of culture can often be misleading. Remember, that problematic question for Niebuhr. What is culture? What is it we are engaging? We often use words without asking if we know what we mean by them. Do we understand what culture is? Even the dictionary definition can be misleading. Culture does not exist in a vacuum. The word needs modification. We never deal with culture in the abstract. It may help to think of culture in concentric circles. We can argue that there is a world culture. We can then subdivide this into eastern and western cultures. We can then subdivide this into English speaking culture and other languages. We then can subdivide this into North American culture. We can then subdivide this into the United States' culture. We may then subdivide this by region, state, state region, county/parish, and city. Each of these cultures informs the others. Indeed, our job is not done, or even within these, niche cultures arise and begin to influence the general cultures and other special interest cultures. Each of these communities come with their own attitudes, values, morals, and conceptions.
Within these subdivisions, you might have considered language a faulty division to make. Twentieth century philosophy has revealed how language can impact culture. One example that often arises is the Inuit/Eskimo words for "snow". The native people of the frozen north have three root words for snow. This is not inconsequential considering English generally has one. We can understand why they have more. This linguistic fact was shaped by culture, but that culture is then shaped by that language. Language describes reality, and the ease or difficulty of that language to describe a certain part of reality molds the people's perception of reality.
Let's try an exercise in how language proves a challenge to interacting with culture. Consider Romans 1:16-18. There, Paul writes, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness." Let us begin with vocabulary. What does "gospel" mean? Not merely denotatively, but in this context? What does the "power of God" mean? What does "the righteousness of God" mean? What does it mean, "the just shall live by faith"? What does the "wrath of God" mean? What does the "unrighteousness of men" mean? What does it mean to "hold the truth in unrighteousness"?
The Bible has its own language and vocabulary. Even modern versions struggle with the problem of translation. A literal translation to the common tongue, without a remedial education in Christian vocabulary cannot be done. There is no single words anymore that accurately convey what the Bible means with one word.
One interesting anecdote from the history of Bible translations reveals this fact. We often think of the King James Version, originally called the Authorized Version, as using the archaic English of its time. In fact, the original public would have found its language foreign as well. It was designed to be easy to memorize, lyric, and theological, a higher English. Instead of adapting to the language of the day, the translators created a translation higher than the common tongue. Instead of following culture, their version actually influenced the language.
We come to understand Biblical phrases because through study, we have learned what they mean. The world has not experienced our education. It then fall to us to explain the gospel to the world, to tell them that the Bible says in ways that they can understand. In order to do so, we need to understand how the world uses language. This is a cultural engagement work.
Not only does the language of the world differ, but its stories differ as well. Stories influence how a culture sees the world. C.S. Lewis once called the Bible "true myth." In a letter to Arthur Greeves, dated October 18, 1931, Lewis wrote, "Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened." Lewis knew that cultures used stories/myths to explain reality. The difference with the gospel was that is was more than a mere story. It was not a fiction to created by the masses, but the truth, the true story that truly explained reality.
Twentieth century philosophy has encouraged this appreciation of the way in which narrative impacts culture. Consider this example. In the deserts of Egypt, the sun was worshipped as God, Ra. In the icy wildness of Norway, the people understood the end of the world, not in burning heat, but in a never-ending winter. The myths and legends follow the culture and environment in which they were born.
The present age, with all its technological and scientific prowess, is not devoid of its myths and stories. During the era of modernism, science became the religion of the west. People believed that scientific discovery would eventually answer all the question and solve all their problems. People believed the story of the big bang and evolution as the origin story of the universe.
People also have a story of the United States. Some tell the story of immigrants coming to find religious freedom. Some tell the story of the fight for freedom, in two wars. People believe these stories explain reality, at least in the United States. Are these stories true? Whose story ought to define the nation? From these stories, culture in the United States has adopted freedom as a (if not the) core value for inhabitants of the nation. It no longer remains confined to religious or political freedom. It means personal freedom that is now pushing the limits of anti-drug laws and definitions of marriage. This is but one example of how understanding the story of a culture can aid in understanding a people and enabling us to speak the message of the gospel in a clearer way.
Within every culture, you have people who possess the ability to influence the direction of culture. Some work to obtain this ability, others have it fall upon them. For many years, the shapers of western culture had some concept of the end or objective of their influence. We often divide people politically between liberals and conservatives. These categories may be used culturally as well. There are some that want to preserve or return to a previous vision of culture (conservatives) and those who want to change to a better or progressive culture (liberals/progressives). Within the last few years, we have reached a point where, in my observation, both sides have lost a vision of what they want the nation to look like. What does the final product look like? What is the vision of the idealized country?
For the progressive, the elements of their end have taken a beating in the recent past. Philosophically, the dominance of modernism has eroded. Economically, the dominance of communism has fallen, while socialism merely treads water. Keynesianism still rules the day, but many are drifting toward Randian objectivism. Culturally, the progressive is winning on many fronts, but what is the end, a world with no limits?
If the progressive has lost his vision, the conservative has forgotten it. What nation does the conservative want? The good ole days are so far behind us, do we even know what they are, when they were, or what they looked like? What does the alternative nation look like? What does either nation look like according to either of these approaches to culture?
As we analyze our culture, we have focused on the national influences. Remember, there are regional, state, and local influences as well. Some of these stand in contradiction the national trends.
The final question remains the most important. How do we use our understanding of culture to speak the gospel to the world? Ironically, those directions of culture most concerning to us, often provide the greatest openings for the gospel. One of the greatest political concerns of the present day is the uncertainty. We are so far off the normal course of events that all the accepted wisdom that worked in the past we may no longer rely upon.
If we feel this way, imagine how the world feels. We have a foundation to stand upon. We rest in the almighty sovereignty of God, who providentially governs everything that happens. The world has no foundation. All the stories that the world used to make sense of the world are proving unreliable. The origin story of modernity, evolution, though still taught, defended, and professed, cannot stand its dehumanizing implications. Before people tried to defend their immorality with science. Now they defend it with love. This demonstrates a paradigm shift in the underlying story. There is no metanarrative that explains reality. There is no end, even for the progressive. There is merely the present and what must happen now. There is no truth, merely "optics".
If we analyze culture aright, we see that the general trend shows that people in the United States are looking for some foundation, some story that will explain their humanness, something that will explain and defend love.
The gospel answers all the questions the world is asking. It gives them the only true story that explains their humanness. It explains what went wrong. It explains what culture should be. It is our duty to put it into words they use and should be able to understand. We cannot understand it for them. We cannot make them believe, but we can and should use their language.
I cannot, and should not give you a script. Each conversation, each society, each culture will require a different approach. I can give you categories, elements to think through, but the language, story, and assumptions will differ. Begin thinking through these questions. What language do others use, not merely english, but idioms that are national, regional, and local? What stories do they believe? Little children believe Disney stories. What stories do adults believe? How do they explain life? What do the people value? What matters to them? What questions are they asking? Understanding culture requires understanding people. We understand people so that we may present the gospel to them. This is how we live Christian in an unchristian world.