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“We must fight their falsehood with our truth, but we must also fight the falsehood in our truth.” – Richard Niebuhr.
So many times, commentators try to pin Christianity up against culture. This comes both from within and outside of the Christian Church. The media likes to do this as well whenever some religiously sensitive topic comes up. They’ll always choose to interview someone with extreme views and characterize all adherents to that religion in the same way as their straw man. This happens all the time with Islam: a minority sparks hatred and violence, and the West applies the results to Muslims everywhere. A few vocal atheists do this same thing when they critique (often successfully) fundamentalist brands of Christianity and claim to have defeated the entire religion not realizing that their critiques often do not apply to Christianity as a whole.
These are some of the common interactions between Christianity and Culture today.Once again, there are always dividing lines drawn just like my previous post mentioned. As a result, some pastors encourage their congregations to disengage from culture and become different, citing God’s commandments to Israel that they be a holy and separate people. On the opposite end of the spectrum, certain people may merely try to fit Christianity into whatever cultural situation arises in the moment; giving Christian “justification” for whatever practice they are advocating. In this second sense, the lines between Christianity and culture are blurred, but often to startling results.
The main point however is that the relationship is more complex. I know as an academic, we get a bad rep for over-complicating things. But in my opinion, the complexity is mostly beneficial as it encourages others to think and not to return with black and white arguments.
Christianity is in fact hostile to certain facets of our culture today. To name but a few, over-individualism, oppressive capitalism, and consumerism. Christians have always posited more of a communal faith in which the members of the body have a significant impact on the well-being of one another. It has preached against using the laws and rules of the land to acquire money immorally to the detriment of the poor, and it has always suggested that the good life is not one full of merely consumer goods or momentary feelings of satisfaction. But Christianity is also in line with many aspects of the world. It too is a product of individual cultures as the influence goes back and forth between the two. In communal societies, salvation was seen as more of a communal event in which God brought humanity back into communion with God’s self in covenant with the Church as a whole, but in our modern individualistic society, salvation is an individual event marked out from community as a relationship between you and God only concerning the eternal destination of your personal soul. Those may be some of the more negative impacts of culture on the Church, but the Church, like culture, is a structured system of beliefs and practices that form some sort of identity. The Church has benefited from the push for social progress, technology, and scientific achievement to degrees that we are only beginning to realize now.
To pit Christ against culture in a black and white sense is overly simplistic, and possibly harmful. Christians are not to cry out against anything and everything that comes from culture. Some aspects of culture should remain indifferent to us just as some should be welcomed gladly.
Another mistake people make, that came from Enlightenment thinking, is that religion should be a private affair. I know you have all heard this: Separation of Church and state as found in our constitution, or the all-too-common mindset that religion only breeds violence and intolerance. Keep your religion at home! they say. Don’t shove your beliefs down my throat. However, what the critic fails to realize is that they are not practicing what they preach. In refusing to give religion a voice in the public sphere, they are “pushing secularism down my throat.” Religion should always impact my thinking within the cultural arena. It is a weak faith that understands its place to exist only on Sundays, and perhaps Wednesday nights. Our faith is meant to be shared, meant to influence the world for the better. The critiques of religion in culture are based upon bad examples of practicing Christianity, and often not on the majority of benevolent believers across the world. Once again, this goes back to characterizing the whole based upon a small few.
Now to the main point. As Christians, we have a vision of what we believe life should be like. We believe that love for God and love for neighbor should be the norm for all of humanity, and that this practice leads to a lifetime of happiness and joy. This is good! To that end, our faith should always be interacting with the elements of culture that need to be reformed; not in a dogmatic, oppressive way characteristic of the greatest religiously-inspired atrocities in human history (Crusades, Inquisition, Eastern European Ethnic cleansing, Middle Eastern war crimes, Terrorism, etc.). On the other end, our faith cannot be reduced merely to going with the flow of culture and unquestionably supporting the various stances found within the world in the name of toleration.
The middle ground of benevolent engagement is most likely the happy medium our faith should strive to achieve. A lot of our culture is really messed up. It’s time we question its practices and values, replacing them first in our own lives with Christian principles of community and love, and then revealing to the world what our faith is all about. Do not be misled by simplistic approaches of disengagement and retreat, nor of blatant coerciveness. Rather, see your own faith for what it is: influenced by culture itself, and as a force for good. In this way, Christians will learn to properly engage their faith with the world in a way that is most faithful to the life and message of Jesus.