An uneasy relationship often exists between the church and its surrounding culture. For example, consider the church’s complicated relationship with The Walt Disney Company. When I was a child, the movie theatre was categorically off-limits. Like many of my generation, I struggled to understand why Disney films were permissible on television but not in the theatre. During my youth pastor years, Disney dilemmas continued to arise. Students giggled about subliminal sexual images in several Disney films while their parents fretted over the hint of New Age philosophies in the same. Curiously, Disney films still maintained a privileged status as “safe” entertainment options at weekend retreats and all-night lock-ins. Not long ago, multitudes of Christians boycotted Disney for variously supporting the homosexual life. Now, many of those same Christians sing Disney’s praises for its Chronicles of Narnia film series.
This ongoing tension between the church and culture predates recent religious debates over such diverse cultural issues as global warming and immigration, terrorism and Superbowls in the church, Moral Majorities and the use of alcohol. In fact, Scripture reminds us that God’s people have always struggled to maintain the integrity of their faith in the midst of pagan cultures, like those of Philistia, Canaan, Samaria, and Babylon. On one hand, the holiness codes of Leviticus called God’s people into cultural resistance and separation. On the other hand, Jesus seemed to practice a strategy of cultural engagement with nonbelievers—appealing to the popular imagination (Lk. 15) and locating himself among those of ill repute (Lk. 7).
Paul’s teaching and example also reflect a tension between church and culture. In one letter to Corinth, Paul recommended separation from unbelievers (2 Cor. 6), yet in another letter to that community, he boasted of becoming all things to all people in order to save some (1 Cor. 9). The same Paul who warned against engagement with idols (1 Cor. 8) also preached a powerful sermon using pagan idolatry and poetry as his starting point (Acts 17).
We Nazarenes may often feel as if we live on Mars—frightened, repelled, perplexed, and outraged by a surrounding alien culture. Nevertheless, we also recognize that God invites us to practice hospitable cultural engagement—a difficult tension to maintain indeed. What is the church to do?
First, consider the doctrine of the incarnation. The incarnation implies God’s great willingness to embrace cultural embodiment as a way to reveal the gospel. In John’s day, Gnostic theologians refused to accept that divine purity and perfection could live and breathe within a material universe. In response, John wrote of a Word that took on flesh in the midst of human “culture” (Jn. 1). Later, Jesus would tell his disciples that they were sent into the midst of “culture” as he had been sent into it (Jn. 17). To both Jesus and John, divine revelation was wrapped up in the practice of cultural communication, not the false dichotomy of fight or flight.
Second, consider John Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace. Wesley believed that by God’s grace, human beings in the midst of culture universally sense the goodness of God and their own subsequent need for salvation, however faintly. God’s preexisting grace drew all persons toward the fullness of salvation. In light of prevenient grace, we can affirm that God is already at work in every culture—whether western or eastern culture, high or popular culture. This affirmation does not seek to make pagan culture synonymous with the kingdom of God. Instead, this affirmation simply encourages us to seek points of correspondence between kingdom and culture before we complain about points of conflict. In other words, we can walk a middle way of critical cultural discernment—a via media between the extremes of either fundamentalist culture wars or a liberal cultural naïveté.
Christ calls us to be bridge builders, not barrier builders.
Our first order of business must always be to listen—humbly and hospitably—to the deepest needs and highest aspirations of those around us. We recognize that God is already in their midst. We confess that God is already on the move. Our mission is to offer a faithful witness that others can understand and embrace within their own cultural framework.
It may be helpful to consider culture as a form of media—albeit a very complex one—that communicates meaning, just as simpler media like film and television also communicate meaning. Many cultural anthropologists tend to analyze culture in terms of the meanings that it mediates through stories, symbols, and rituals. To this end, media theorist Marshall McLuhan created a series of questions for media analysis that can be adapted for cultural analysis as well. In the examples below, I’ve taken the liberty to simplify and modify McLuhan’s questions in order to render them more useful for our current discussion:
- What aspects of the gospel does culture enhance or intensify? For example, consider the political parties of the United States. What aspects of the gospel are enhanced or intensified by Republican policy and practice? How about Democratic policy and practice? Proponents can readily identify aspects of the gospel within their own political party. Opponents—not so much. However, if we apply the doctrine of prevenient grace to political culture, then we may realize that points of correspondence do exist between the gospel and the political right and the political left.
- What aspects of the gospel does culture distort or obscure? Again, consider the political parties of the United States. What aspects of the gospel are pushed aside or obscured by Republican policy and practice? How about Democratic policy and practice? Admittedly, it is much easier to identify the shortcomings of “the other party” than of one’s own. Yet when we adopt a middle way of critical cultural discernment, then it becomes clear that the politics of both right and left tend to distort the gospel at particular points.
If political parties don’t make the point clear, then try to ask these questions of other cultural “media.” What aspects of the gospel are enhanced, intensified, distorted, or obscured by the video clips that we may use in Christian worship or in age-level ministry? How about the integration of Christian worship and patriotic celebration? Affluence and Christian obedience? Sports and Christian discipleship? Psychological counseling and Christian faith?
The point here is really very simple: No cultural expression is really “gospel-neutral.” Caught in the tension between God’s prevenient grace and creation’s brokenness, each and every cultural expression tends to reflect the gospel at certain points--even while obscuring the gospel at others.
The church is not at war with culture, and yet the church cannot uncritically embrace culture.
The church is not at war with culture, and yet the church cannot uncritically embrace culture. Instead, we walk the middle way, cultural critics and cultural communicators all at once. One foot in culture and one foot out. The shrewdness of snakes and the innocence of doves. The meaning of incarnation amidst the promise of prevenient grace. Perhaps this is partly what Jesus had in mind when he prayed that his disciples would be in the world but not of it—taking on its form, speaking its language, but pointing beyond it to a kingdom that has no end (Jn. 17).
MARK HAYSE is Associate Professor of Christian Education at MidAmerica Nazarene University