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Reacting To Culture

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For the first time since I became eligible, I wasn’t able to cast my vote for any of the leading presidential nominees without violating my conscience. The developments in the presidential race that have occurred since Tuesday have actually decreased my confidence in our culture and in whoever becomes our next President.

Do I believe the sky is falling? No. However, I think that the nature of this political season underscores concerns we all should have about the trajectory of our culture.

I’ve been burdened by a particular question for a long time. My burden was increased this Tuesday as I walked out of the voting booth.

What is the church’s appropriate reaction to our culture?

One of my favorite author/theologians is N.T. Wright. The following extended quote is from How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. He highlights four tendencies of churches, all of which are misguided, all of which I see happening all around:

By and large the churches have lapsed into one of four (to my mind) unhelpful reactions.

The first is to say that all this doesn’t matter, because we’re going to heaven and we’ll leave this old world behind once and for all. That stance, interestingly, became increasingly popular throughout the nineteenth century, when “heaven” became the ultimate home and “resurrection”—with all its political overtones of new creation and new society—was quietly shelved or reduced to the status of an ineffective dogma or even metaphor. … I trust it is becoming increasingly clear to people now that such a position simply won’t do. This isn’t what the four gospels are about. It’s actually closer to Gnosticism.

The second thing that Christians have done is to say, with the neo-Anabaptists, that the church must simply put its own house in order, keep its own nose clean, and live as a beacon of light, but without actually engaging with the world. It must construct a parallel society in which the kingdom values of Jesus are lived out for all to see. Now I’m all for the church cleaning up its act and shining like a light in the world. But the strong sectarian separation that all this implies seems to pay no attention to the great statements of Jesus’ cosmic lordship in the New Testament, not least the claim of Matthew 28 that Jesus already possesses all authority on earth as well as in heaven. It is always in danger of dualism, of cutting off the creational branch on which all Christian thinking ought to be sitting.

The third and fourth reactions among Christians, which are all too powerful today (particularly in the United States), have simply baptized the right-wing and left-wing politics of a deeply divided society and claimed this or that one as Christian, to be implemented and if possible exported. Listening to the sub-Christian language on display among those exultant at the killing of Osama bin Laden in the early summer of 2011 was an example of this right-wing tendency; anything that advances the worldview of Fox News is assumed to be basically Christian, wise, and automatically justified. But listening to many on the left, I have a similar problem. The left claims the high Christian and moral ground of a concern for the poor and the marginalized, but again this regularly parrots the elements of liberal modernism, not least its new sexual ethic, without any attempt to scale the true heights of the gospel vision in the New Testament (pp. 165, 166).

There’s no simple answer. Wright’s solution, in summary, is that we become people both of the kingdom and the cross. Again, Wright says:

Different Christians have found that they want to highlight one element or the other, whether the “kingdom,” to validate a contemporary social agenda (and to leave a question mark as to why the cross mattered at all), or the “cross,” to emphasize the mechanism by which God rescues sinners from this world and enables them to go to “heaven” (leaving a question mark as to why either Jesus or the evangelists would think it mattered that much to do all those healings, to walk on water, or to give such remarkable teaching) (p. 176).

So, what is the appropriate reaction to culture? How can Christians conduct themselves?

Cross and Kingdom

We react to culture by being people of the cross and people of the kingdom.

To be people of kingdom is to be people who join Jesus in his kingdom-bringing work for the world, striving for justice and mercy on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed, working for peace and the common good. To be people of the cross is to be people of deep and abiding faith, who humble ourselves, who follow our Savior, joining him in his suffering and in the new life that is to come.

What about you?

What is your response to the culture in which we’re living?