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What Is Christian Culture?
by Jim Rotholz
7/29/2016 / Christian Living
Is there such a thing as Christian culture? And if so, what does it look like in America today?
If one thinks of culture as behavioral norms and lifestyle choices that are unequivocally Christian, then the answer to the first question is a resounding no. There is no Christian culture; there are only Christians with culture. Yet, under certain circumstances, cultural patterns can and do align with God purposes and biblical truthat least temporarily. And when they do, Christian culture can manifest in America in virtually any arena, just as it can wherever there are followers of Christ.
To get to the bottom of the matter it is necessary that we first understand what culture is. Then we will be in a better position to look at its influence on Christian faith and lifestyle choices to determine which aspects of American culture can legitimately be labeled Christian, and when.
For most AmericansChristian or notculture is likely much more encompassing a construct than first imagined. It includes everything connected to our thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, language, and behaviorseverything. There is absolutely nothing associated with our identity, way of thinking, worldview, beliefs, actions, or material effects that is not in some way hitched to our given culture (or subculture, since diversity is normative in America). Culture is ubiquitous, permeating every niche of human life. In fact, human life cannot exist without culture to express it.
To borrow computer lingo, culture is the software that runs the hard drive of our human nature. As Christians, we understand that human nature can reflect both the image of our benevolent and loving God in whose marvelous image we are uniquely fashioned, as well as the very worst of human behaviors gone horribly rancid from the Fall. Being human means each of us possesses the capacity to conceive and create either rhapsodic bliss or appalling carnage amongst one another. Culture is simply the tool we wield to both imagine and carry out every diverging intention.
Put in the simplest of terms, culture emerges out of human nature as an attempt for "me and my people" to flourish within our given environment: natural, social, economic, etc. Essentially all human thought and behavior can be traced back to this singular motivation, the larger part of which is firmly rooted in the unconscious. The main distinctive becomes just where one decides to draw the line between "me and my people" and "not my people." That line then becomes the determining factor for how we perceive, think about, and act toward one another and the environments we inhabit.
For Americans, the line is often drawn too close to home, with loose talk lately of building walls and meting out retribution against those "other people." It's a serious matter about which Jesus had quite a lot to say (ex., Luke 10:25-37), and a golden opportunity for Christians to distinguish themselves and the Kingdom they represent as wholly different from the culture-de-jour. What Jesus taught about those "others" and our line-drawing propensities goes a long way toward determining if and when any part of our culture deserves to be called Christian.
Of course, the secular scientific community doesn't agree that such a thing as human nature exists distinct from animal nature. Such thinking posits that all organisms operate only from the hard drive of their genes. Each organism and species is thought to represent but a different configuration of highly evolved DNA that conspires to thrust its own kind into the future ("survival of the fittest"). By these lights, culture is reduced to what we learn and absorb along that chaotic genetic trajectory. There is no image of God, therefore no cultural expression to reflect that imageonly genes and culture interacting in perpetual self-survival mode. Inspiring stuff, isn't it?
From a Christian perspective then, "secular culture" (if such a thing exists) represents a God-less effort to humanistically steer mankind toward more enlightened thinking and an improved future in which not only our species but the whole universe thrives. Nothing wrong with that, except unredeemed human nature is fated to generate and perpetrate various forms of human regression, for which humanism can offer no viable solution except to try harder. A bad tree simply cannot produce good fruit (Matt.7:18).
This point brings us to the crux of the matter. The culture we create and reflect as Christians is always and only as good as the quality of human nature that undergirds it. Thoughts and actions borne out of redeemed human nature can rightly be said to constitute Christian culture, whether that be something as mundane as politely opening a door for someone or a more grandiose endeavor such as ministering to the poor and destitute abroad. Likewise, every intention, thought and action emanating from unredeemed dimensions of human nature can never result in anything cultural that approaches the right to be called Christian. Outward forms are essentially irrelevant. It's the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit within the cultural forms that makes all the difference. Conventions and inventions can certainly be goodas with medicine, education, or social assistancebut that doesn't distinguish them as Christian.
Thus, much of what we typically consider to be Christian culture in America (attending church, regular scripture reading, listening to Christian music, political conservatism), won't qualify if done from compulsion, resentment, self-promotion, or even accepted tradition. Cultural forms are only vehicles that carry what is truly substantivethe soul and its contents. That's why Jesus stirred up so much animosity among the religious leaders (the culture police) of his day, drawing accusations intended to condemn him and his message of redemption (Matt 12:24; Luke 7:34). He regularly ignored the religiously generated cultural mores of his day in order to follow the express impetus of the Father, whose redemptive agenda was in conflict with every cultural tradition that veered from his loving purposes for the entire human race. The "letter of the Law" can never substitute for the "spirit of the law." (Matt 23:23; 2 Cor 3:6).
If and when we contemporary Christians confuse our behavioral forms and formulas for being led of the Spirit in conformity to the Word, we fail in our efforts to create, sustain, or in any way positively influence the culture around us. We cannot "engage the culture" using mere behavioral norms and formulaic approaches. No amount of religiosity will change or preserve anything worthy of the Name. Yet, whenever we think and act from a place of obedience and conformity to God's heart, we will engender Christian culture in the processoften in varied and unexpected forms. A salvific pulpit can emerge from a beer shared on a local barstool, a Spirit-filled gospel presentation from an impromptu rap-challenge on the street. Even our encounters with disease, death, and every apparent failure in life can manifest in cultural expressions that glorify Godshould we so choose.
Jesus came to us, and continues to come to us, in and through culture. Faith in him always and everywhere must be expressed in cultural terms. But the shape those terms take today should not, in and of themselves, be considered undyingly sacred. They are destined to change, one moment bearing God's Spirit to effectively express his sovereign purposes, the next to become fossilized forms, barren and fruitless. To focus exclusively on cultural preferences is to miss the critical importance of their contents, which, if God-imbued, will always reflect the fruits of the Spirit as described in Galatians 5:22-23. We only represent the person and purposes of Godand what can legitimately pass for Christian culturewhen we are led by God's uncontrollable Spirit (Rom 8:14).
America has known and continues to know God's favor. It is not, however, due to cultural norms and behaviors that we can replicate in a formulaic manner and robotically impose on others. Forcefulness and compulsion are destructive to God's purposes, and the cultural forms that bore his stamp in the past are no sure template for the future. His favor is simple unmerited grace that he sheds up us in spite of our propensity to enlist misguided efforts to honor and serve him through many of the formalities we have come to associate with Christian religious behavior. Yet when we determine to sincerely put God and his Kingdom first in our livesahead of our most highly valued and carefully crafted norms and behaviorsthat's something he can work with to both shape us more perfectly into his wondrous image, and change our world into a place of redemptive hope.
Jesus taught and exemplified love of both neighbor and enemy. The demeaning and exclusionary lines we tend to draw between ourselves and the despised others whom God dearly loves are little more than cultural constructs devoid of his life-giving Spirit. His people are meant to be our people, and there are none in this wide and tumultuous world that exist beyond the limits of his love and concern (Jn 3:16). To effectively reach them all in their distinct diversity, and positively impact the societies we currently inhabit, we must learn to better discern how God moves in and through the medium of culture. That means embracing or challenging cultural norms according to kingdom principles, not according to self-determined efforts to artificially manufacture lifestyles we can comfortably label Christian culture.
In the end, Christian culture creates itself whenever we abide in Christ, apart from whom we can do nothing of worth for God's kingdom or a hurting world desperately needing the hope and healing only he can offer (Jn 15:4-5).
Jim Rotholz, PhD, worked five years in missions and international development in Nepal, Somalia, and Ethiopia. He also served a brief tenure as Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University. His most recent book (his third) is Gospel Without Borders: Separating Christianity from Culture in America (Wipf and Stock, 2015). He has two grown children and currently lives in northern New Mexico with Louise, his gifted and adventurous wife of 37 years.
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