Culture Wars

I actually once heard a colleague say, "Well, we all know that the culture is the enemy, right?" To which all in the room at least tacitly agreed. That was a sad day, because I then realized how far removed from mission we had become. I am grateful that Jesus didn't dismiss me as His enemy in my culture-bound state, but rather accepted me as I was, and began His life-long, patient work in me.

The proper posture of the church toward the cultural milieu in which she lives, moves and carries out her mission is under debate in every age. H. Richard Niebuhr's classic, Christ and Culture, outlines the 5 basic postures that the church has taken throughout history and indeed takes in our present time. Christ against Culture, the Christ of Culture, Christ above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox and Christ the Transformer of Culture. All 5 of these are visible and present in the universal church today. While the present clash in the various Anglican fragments appears primarily to be Christ against Culture (reformed "orthodoxy") vs the Christ of Culture (progressivism or "heterodoxy"), the conversation needs to be broader than this. Christ Transforming Culture has a better ring, but the church needs to recover a humility that she has lost, for it is the culture that in many ways nurtures, protects and even makes possible, the church. Christ and Culture in Paradox (Luther's view) is frustrating to those whose theodicy is still up for grabs. Christ above Culture is disappearing fast and tipping way over toward the grass roots ground-up spirituality of people like "Red-Letter Christians" in their general disdain for the institutional church (transformative and sacrificially missional, and perhaps in "danger" of being more loving and open like the Jesus of the gospels). All of these, in a unified church, have a valid place and should be held in tension: Christ against Culture (as in times of genocide), the Christ of Culture (self-aware of our origins and commonality with all of humanity), Christ above Culture (when the church informs the secular authorities about goodness, as with Wilberforce and the non-violent government-based abolition of slavery in England), Christ and Culture in Paradox (we live in this world yet know that, through Christ, we belong to another). The temptation is for adherents of one to want to starve out and eradicate the others. We should learn again not to be threatened by any, and open to all and to nurture their best forms. Fragmentation, again, only diminishes. But can we de-fragment? That is the question that Jesus asks. Can we be one?


  1. I've had a very hard time with the "war on culture" mantra primarily because it pits "church" against people and gives "culture" the very excuse it needs to avoid institution and anything that remotely resembles "man-made structure". Its very easy, natural even, to think that since "we" are charged with being the important heralds of the Good News and that our main duties include changing, rearranging, altering and definitively interpreting God's intentions. While we are indeed commissioned with sharing the Good News I think we forget sometimes that our role is basically that of a gardener. We are to plant seeds, water them regularly, pick the occasional weed, wait for them to grow, understand some plants die even when you do everything "right", rotate crops so the soil doesn't get depleted, plant certain plants in the right season, understand which plants compliment one another and try to separate the ones that don't without killing either, figure out where the sun shines, and try to protect them from disease and pests. This is hard work. It is dirty work. It's sometimes rewarding and sometimes very disappointing. If you neglect the garden even for a short time it is not as you left it. Leave fruit on the vine too long and birds destroy it. Don't pay attention or protect the flower bed and the dog stomps on it. Forget to water and some plants die forever while some revive but only through tender care. Weeds slowly but surely creep in. Once they take root they are tough to manage. To many folks gardening is not dignified or glorious work. It may not seem worth all the effort for the yield. Or maybe it's a fun hobby and at some point the novelty wears off. Maybe you ran in full speed without any forethought and planted too much of something and don't know what to do with 10 lbs of eggplant every week. All in all it seems to me that if churches try to be humble gardeners they will remember who really makes plants grow (and causes people's hearts to change). It's not us because we cannot change anything, only God can. We can only provide the proper conditions for change and nurture and encourage. God has all the power and gives all the people the freedom to chose. The more we try to control or take charge the more we become like big business. Our precious gardens where each plant has value and we know each one by name becomes fields of crops being sprayed with pesticides. It becomes about the greater good. The lost sheep concept no longer applies when you're only looking at the big picture. Big business is all about mergers and allies. Splitting off when its most advantageous. Collateral damage and acceptable losses are factored in. Lost sheep will not find there way back to such a place and no one is coming out to look for them.

  2. I wonder if instead of "Can we be one?", the question should be "Can we be balanced?". You stated yourself that we need all 5 components in equal is not an issue of all Christians seeing it the same is an issue of all Christians seeing the value in all 5 viewpoints at various times.

    God (and in this form, Christ) is complex. The Bible continuously shows us that we can not know His ways. Culture is complex (says the Sociology grad). I would think there is no simple way to look at this.

    In addition to all of that, culture is rapidly changing while Christ stays constant. There is bound to be variations to how Christ and culture interact. I am not a big doomsday kinda guy (apart from zombies of course), but it stands to reason that as we get closer to end times, culture is going to spin out of control from a Godly perspective.

    In closing, Christ teaches that while we should be in one accord whenever possible, we should not all strive to be the same. I am reminded of Romans 12:4 here in that we each have our own special function (ie: viewpoint of culture in this case) AND that each function/viewpoint is necessary for the global function of the body (the Church in this case).

  3. Right, Tim. Maintaining unity by realizing that all these positions have value within, or under, the big umbrella of the church, not to fragment over them.

  4. saw this via richard rohr and thought it was fitting for your post:

    If we just stay on the fearful or superficial side of the religious spectrum, religion is invariably defined by exclusionary purity codes that always separate things into sacred and profane. God is still distant, punitive, and scary. Then our religious job becomes putting ourselves only on the side of “sacred” things (as if you could) and to stay apart from worldly or material things, even though Jesus shows no such preference himself.

    After the beginnings of mystical experience (which is just prayer experiences), one finds that what makes something secular or profane is precisely whether one lives on the surface of it. It’s not that the sacred is here and the profane is over there. Everything is profane if you live on the surface of it, and everything is sacred if you go into the depths of it—even your sin. To go inside your own "mistakenness" is to find God. To stay on the surface of very good things is to often do very unkind and evil things, while calling them good. This important distinction is perfectly illustrated by Jesus’ parable of the publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14).

    So the division for the Christian is not between secular and sacred things, but between superficial things and things at their depth. The depths always reveal grace, while staying on the surface allows one to largely miss the point (the major danger of fundamentalism, by the way). Karl Rahner, the German Jesuit, and one of my heroes of Vatican II, loved to call this “the mysticism of ordinary life.”