#TheologyTuesday: On Culture and Christianity

#TheologyTuesday: On Culture and Christianity

There is rarely a week that goes by where I don’t find myself engaged in a conversation about culture.

I may get sent a link to a news article or Facebook post with a “What do you think?” attached.
I find myself sitting down for a cup of tea or coffee, and soon the conversation heads towards how to raise kids in our world today.
A video with a mom or pastor or maybe both ranting about the latest song, movie or trend goes viral – and someone is sharing it with me.
Friends and church family have questions.
Questions about how Christians should respond to our culture’s views on sexuality, media, family, alcohol, friendship, politics, morality and everything in between.

It always intrigues me that when these conversations arise, we look for answers on a case-by-case basis.
We want to know how to deal with a particular problem or issue or news article TODAY.
We want to be able to have a conversation with our kids about an event or politician this week.
We want to know what the Bible says about this song, this trend, this activity, right here, right now.

What if, though there was a better way?
What if, instead of scrambling every time we faced a new situation or challenge, we had a framework for confronting them?

What if we had – dare I say it – a theology of culture?

Of course, by now you know I wouldn’t be writing this post if I didn’t think that was possible.
I’m a firm believer that understanding what we believe impacts how we live in our everyday world – and this absolutely includes how we interact with culture.
We can have a theology – based on Scripture, history, experience and our common sense the good Lord gave us – that engages with issues and allows us to know where we stand.

A “theology of culture” means we don’t need to fear the next news cycle or question from our kids.
We know what we believe and can use it to interact with whatever is happening today, or might happen tomorrow.

In order to develop this “theology of culture”, we first need to understand what exactly we mean when we say culture.
While culture may mean a variety of things (depending on the context), culture generally refers to the customs, arts, institutions & achievements of a particular people, nation or group.
I have found that when most people refer to “culture” in casual conversation are talking about the beliefs, trends, customs and actions of our Western world.

This doesn’t negate the fact that depending on where you live in the world, the people group you’re a part of, or even the family you were raised in, you may have a unique culture. Everyone in the Western World doesn’t live the same, look the same or function the same. However, the society that we live in, by and large, holds a particular set of values and beliefs. There are certain things that are popular and some phrases that everyone understands. Particular people and celebrities dominate television screens and Twitter feeds. Like it or not, we have a dominant culture.

You might be getting to this point in the post and thinking – this sounds like 9th grade Social Studies.
What on earth does this have to do with theology?!

Valid question.
You see, most Christians would tell you that our mainstream or “popular” culture, is in some way, shape or form, at odds with what they believe. Turn on the radio the next time you drive (yes, some of us do still listen to the radio!), and listen to the lyrics of a few songs. Things like excessive drinking, casual sex, hookups, and violence permeate the words.
Flick through the channels on cable at primetime, and you’ll catch a glimpse of all kinds of lifestyles, celebrities and news stories that conflict with what many Christians understand to be true and moral.

I hope you’re starting to see where the conflict comes in.
How are Christians supposed to live in and engage with a world that looks so different than them?
How do we raise kids in a culture that promotes values that don’t line up with ours?
How do we love the people around us when we don’t agree with their lifestyle choices?

This is why a theology of culture is so desperately needed.

Much has been written on this topic throughout history. Believe it or not, this is far from a new issue! Even Jesus’ followers struggled with their place in the culture. In fact, in the lengthiest prayer of Jesus recorded in the Bible, He addresses this very issue. Listen to how the Message Bible paraphrases Jesus’ words:

 I gave them your word; The godless world hated them because of it, because they didn’t join the world’s ways, just as I didn’t join the world’s ways. I’m not asking that you take them out of the world, but that you guard them from the Evil One.  They are no more defined by the world than I am defined by the world.  Make them holy – consecrated – with the truth; Your word is consecrating truth. In the same way that you gave me a mission in the world, I give them a mission in the world. I‘m consecrating myself for their sakes, so they’ll be truth-consecrated in their mission.

Jesus knew that His followers – both then and now – would live in the constant tension in being in the world, but different than the world. In fact, later in the New Testament, Christians are called “aliens” and “strangers” in the world we presently live in. Following Jesus often means the way we live, the things we value and the choices we make look different than others in our culture.

That doesn’t change the fact though, that we still live in the world. We still have to send our kids to school, still have to work, still have to interact with people on a day-to-day basis. So how do we do it?

One author has summarized five approaches Christians traditionally take. Here they are:

Each of these views has been touted by various Christians for various reasons. Take some time to ask yourself – where do I fall? What is my tendency when it comes to engaging with the world around me?
While there is no clear Biblical reference that says “This approach to culture is the right one”, I believe that the ways of Jesus, the story of Scripture, and the Holy Spirit’s witness in my own life, point to seeing Christ as the transformer of culture.

I can definitely see the appeal in hiding away in a bunker somewhere when I look at the world around me.
I can also see the appeal of blending in with culture and floating along with whatever trends and whims come along next.
However, I am convinced that as Christians, we have a greater calling.

That calling is reflected in the prayer of Jesus in John 17, and in His life.

It is to be in our world, and to see the beauty in it.

It is to see the incredible talent, innovation and creativity exhibited by many in our world who publish books, produce music and movies, and invent technology I could never dream of.

But it is also to come alongside and see the places where because of Jesus, things can be better.
That the moral standards of our world can be transformed because Jesus is present.
And I can be a part of it, because Jesus lives in me.

Instead of choosing to hide away, I choose to step into the world around me, and shine the light of Jesus.
I choose to partner with the Holy Spirit, look for where He is at work, and come alongside.
It means when I hear a news story, face a challenging situation or hear a song on the radio, I can look for the good, and ask Christ to transform the bad.

Because He is able.
And we – His people – are His partners in the transforming.

Stay tuned next week – I’m going to be looking at some of the more practical ways this view fleshes out!

Further Reading:
Christ and Culture” by Hugh Whelchel
“Three Ways to Engage Culture” by Ed Stetzer
” A Biblical Foundation for Engaging with Culture” by Tony Watkins
“Culture Making” by Andy Crouch

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