Christ and Culture

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Mark Roberts has a very insightful post series: Cultural Impact or Cultural Irrelevance: A Christian Dilemma. I'm not sure he's said anything I haven't seen or thought before (except his particular focus on seeing some of what I've seen elsewhere in Philippians, the details of which I was unaware of in the passages he cites), but he seems to me to have a rare combination of maturity, balance, forthrightness, and understanding of the culture around us. It's nice to see it all encapsulated in a short place. Highlights:

"Most of the people who shape our culture, especially those who produce television shows, movies, Broadyway [sic] plays, rock music, and MTV videos, live in a moral universe that's far different from the moral universe of Christianity. Their perceptions of right and wrong differ vastly from the perceptions held by most Christians. This isn't a gripe. It's simply a fact."

"Those in the Christ against Culture camp recognize that culture opposes basic Christian values. Therefore they tend to withdraw from the world, either trying their best to ignore it (the Amish option) or taking pot shots at the world from a safe moral distance. Separation from the fallen world is, at any rate, central to Christian living."

"The Christ of Culture folk are much more accepting of culture. Opposing the theological conservatism of the Christ against Culture camp, they espouse a liberal theology that allows culture to determine the shape of Christian living. So, if the culture blesses sex outside of marriage, then Christians shouldn't attack this viewpoint, but rather reinterpret it in a Christian way. We should encourage fornicators to have mature, loving, just relationships, not to abandon their fornication."

"Ironically, both choices end up with a similar result: we give up our ability to impact the culture for good. Yet trying to live somewhere in the middle, to engage in a critical dialogue between Christ and culture, is tricky, not to mention messy."

He then proceeds to look at Paul's example in Philippians of utilizing the language of the culture around him to engage the culture in way that both challenges the assumptions of the world of his day but also recognizes what's right in it. The first chapter of II Peter does exactly the same thing, using ethical categories of the Hellenistic philosophers but applying them in a distinctly Christian way and clearly challenging ideas of the Hellenistic philosophers in the process.

"My theological rationale for cultural engagement goes deeper the [sic] Paul's example. It is rooted in God's creation of the world and in the fact that God cares deeply about the redemption of his creation. God himself models cultural engagement as he enters into relationship with Israel, as he reveals his truth in human languages, and, most of all, in the Incarnation of the Divine Word in Jesus Christ. We who follow Jesus have no choice, I believe, but to imitate his example of cultural engagement.

"But, as I've said before, this is no picnic. Living in the crossroads of Christ and culture is challenging, risky, messy, and often frustrating. How much easier it would be for us to remain sequestered within our own safe religious world. Easier, yes. Faithful to Jesus Christ, no. After all, he's the one who said that we are to shine as light in the world (Matt 5:14-16)."

He then discusses how Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ seems to be a good example of this, listing the requisite risks and potential impact of such a venture.

One thing I didn't see that could have made given some biblical focus to some application would have been looking at the example of Jesus' own life and how he both challenged prevailing assumptions of the various groups influencing the culture around him but also used the general framework of those around him to speak to the culture in ways they would understand, not just because of the language he chose to use but also because some of the values of his immediate environment gave rise to true godliness when nudged in the right direction. (An example off the top of my head would be his opposition to the legalism and hypocrisy of the Pharisees while commending those who had true zeal for the scriptures for their pursuit of plumbing the depths of God's word. The Pharisees clearly had aspects of both tendencies.)

I'm curious how this model, which I agree with him is biblical, should affect political participation, including voting, political speech in a public forum, activism for political change, and governing decisions of Christians in elected and appointed positions in government. Also, what does it mean for those in authority positions in secular organizations outside government (e.g. the pilot who got himself into trouble by trying this bad evangelistic strategy)? How should it affect which people we choose to spend time with and how we choose to spend it with them? How should it affect musicians who want to use their musical gifts to engage the culture? How should it affect how we school our children? What about how we choose our entertainment and news sources or how we choose a career? I think about this a lot in terms of how I teach, what sort of issues I should focus on with my blog, which issues to pick out as most important in my discussions with fellow philosophers and which I should just let slide as a battle not to pick for now, etc. I'd love to see Christians working hard to develop principles and guidelines for this.

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